Seven years ago I ripped the CD off the front of a music magazine and found myself in the thick of a Poulenc concerto that was being played as if life depended on it. Now Poulenc is the acme of laid-back and the solo instrument, the harpsichord, had been consigned to the junkshop before young Brahms was running errands for ladies of the Reeperbahn. This recording was, for me, an act of instrumental resurrection.
So I tracked down the harpsichordist, Mahan Esfahani, by name, and took him to breakfast. He turned out to be young, gay, Iranian, Presbyterian, Stanford-educated, restlessly intellectual and altogether full-on. What’s not to like?
In a film we made soon after he showed me the effort required to tune the harpsichord several times daily (pianists don’t know how to do that) and preached the instrument’s adaptability to all forms of music, ancient and modern. ‘Bartok?’ I challenged. He knocked off a page of Mikrokosmos from memory. ‘Ligeti?’ ‘Working on it,’ he said.
So when Damian Thompson announced this week in the Spectator that Mahan had crashed his career, my alarm bells went off in B-flat bloody major because I have a high regard for Mahan and a good deal of respect for Damian’s judgement. Damian pointed out that Mahan had picked a fight on a music website, accusing his fellow harpsichordists of sinister nationalism. The 60-something-year-old German, Andreas Staier hit back, arguing that Mahan thought he was the be-all and end-all of harpsichordists and no one else had a right to an opinion. It was CBeebies level disputation, a playpen spat.
The point about Mahan is that he will pick a fight in an empty room if he thinks it will make a passing telephone engineer pay attention to the harpsichord. He is determined to push the instrument back to front of stage for the first time in two centuries and if he has to shred a few tinklers to get there, so be it. In a milieu led by tweedy academics in a fine cloud of dandruff, Mahan is a blast of fresh air in a flatulent cloister. He takes on tenured musicologists in manuscript shoot-outs. One of these days he will smash a harpsichord on a critic’s head. Damian, you’ve been warned.
And the method seems to be working. In 2011, he gave the first solo harpsichord recital in the history of the BBC Proms. He won a contract with Deutsche Grammophon and played a concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He convinced the protective Steve Reich to let him perform Piano Phase on harpsichord, playing one part against his own pre-recorded track. He is looking for a pianist brave enough to match him in the Elliott Carter double concerto.
Against all reasonable expectations, the harpsichord is back near the centre of the musical conversation and no one can claim more credit for that than the unrepentant Mahan Esfahani. He, meanwhile, has moved to Prague to live close to his nonagenarian teacher, Zuzana Ruzickova, an indomitable Auschwitz survivor. Mahan is not going to be rolled down the Staier case.
What Damian sees as career crash is, in fact, the next phase of Mahan Esfahani’s campaign to engage the harpsichord with the 21st century. He’s playing the Wigmore Hall next week, makes his Israel debut three days later. He has a professorship at the Guildhall. He’ll be fine, Damian, no need to fear for his future.
I do agree, however, that there are too many inflated classical reputations presently on the loose. BBC Radio 3 does us a terrible disservice by hyping all things British. I’m happy to join Damian any day debating the hyped-up vacuity of certain pianists, for starters. Game on?