The passinge mesures: music of the English virginalists

Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord and virginals
Hyperion CDA68249
77’ 43

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his recording provides further confirmation of Mahan Esfahani’s status among the finest keyboard players of his generation. For listeners who relish challenging material and interpretations on the harpsichord, he is perhaps the most exciting exponent in the present day. Here he presents a varied and well-chosen selection from a repertory which, as he makes passionately clear in the accompanying booklet, is close, if not closest of all, to his heart and mind: music by Bull, Byrd, Giles and Richard Farnaby, Gibbons, Inglott and Tomkins. There could hardly be a better programme; different, certainly, but not better.

All of the pieces on this disc have appeared on other recordings, either of virginalist anthologies or discs devoted to the works of specific composers. Even the three anonymous pieces – a setting of Dowland’s Can she excuse my wrongs, The Scottish gig  and the concluding Variations on the Romanesca – have their discographical niches. But the strength of an anthology such as this is in the selecting of the pieces, the performer’s attitude to them and, more elusively, the chemistry between the pieces – a combination of how the pieces complement one another and how the performer’s attitude is manifested through them. Esfahani’s commitment to this repertory is absolute. He plays it because of how it affects himself, but also with missionary zeal because he wants it to affect other people as profoundly. Thankfully this does not result in an evangelical harangue. There are passages of gentleness and even humour alongside those exhibiting a dazzling technique and some powerful projection.

Outstanding performances have of course to stand out from the rest, but before a few pieces are selected, it should be emphasized that all the performances stand out within the entirety of the English virginalist discography. That said, a few deserve special mention because of the quality of the individual works. These are not the best-known, go-to or even knee-jerk selections from their respective composers’ oeuvres. One such is the beautiful pavan by Gibbons, MB 20/16, which, like Bull’s fine Fantasia MB 14/12 also included here, proclaims its derivation from the generic prototype pioneered by Byrd; perhaps it is this relative conformity in Bull’s composition (albeit echoing the controlled anarchy of Byrd’s famous Fantasia in a) that has led to the suggestion (implausible, in my opinion) that it might be by Benjamin Cosyn, in whose manuscript it appears, notwithstanding the attribution there to Bull. Esfahani also gives more substance to Gibbons’ Woody-cock than other interpretations, and exploits the brief chromatics in Bull’s Chromatic or Queen Elizabeth’s pavan without derailing the overall rhetoric of the piece. The best of Giles Farnaby’s several Fantasias, Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (FVB) 129, also has structural resonances of Byrd’s Fantasia, though thanks to a fresh and exuberant performance by Esfahani it sounds very much the work of its composer, and he also makes a case for William Inglott’s variations on the old stalwart The leaves bee greene aka Browning, giving the unique voice of this sound provincial composer a brief outing.

Esfahani already has some excellent interpretations of Byrd under his belt from Byrd Bach Ligeti which is his live recording, mainly of Byrd, at the Wigmore Hall (WHLive0066). Here he enlarges his Byrd discography with penetrating readings of two monumental works, the hexachord fantasia Ut re mi fa sol la and The ninth pavan and galliard also known as The passing measures or Passamezzo from My Lady Nevell’s Book. And perhaps the very best performance and interpretation on the disc is of Tomkins’ wonderful, profound, heartfelt and virtuosic Pavan FVB 123 (his only pavan in this source), an emotionally generous work which embraces or inspires resonances in the music of contemporaries such as Byrd, Dowland and Bull (his Chromatic pavan on this disc) yet remains entirely unique to Tomkins, undoubtedly the greatest composer ever to have been born in Wales; the Iranian Esfahani does him full justice among all these Englishmen.

Finally, as for Esfahani’s overall performance, he responds stylishly and elegantly to this music that evidently means so much to him, responding with panache to glittering cascades of notes when given the opportunity by the composers where they let their creativity exuberantly rip. Questions can legitimately be raised about his use of a copy of a German harpsichord of 1710 (though perhaps not of the copy of early 17th-century English virginals) an issue that he confronts in the accompanying booklet. For this reviewer, as both an authenticist yet also someone who wishes to encourage pianists to idiomatically play this repertory (I split this infinitive for clarity and rhetoric), I found that Esfahani’s interpretations on his chosen instruments gave me fresh insights into pieces by composers with whom I am very familiar. I hope other readers will investigate this thoughtful, stimulating and quite outstanding record.

Richard Turbet

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