Harpsichordists rarely make it into headlines: it’s a quiet profession. But a notable exception is Mahan Esfahani, the provocative, outspoken master-maverick of his world (think Boris Johnson crossed with Stephen Fry) whose recent claims to fame include a fracas at a concert in Cologne, where he played modern music to a hostile audience and then lectured them on why they ought to like it.
Anyone who manages to generate such lively feelings in a classical performance gets my vote. And Esfahani isn’t just a controversialist. He thinks, with wits as rapid as his fingers. He’s sophisticated, eloquent, impressive. And to hear him play – in music old or new – is thrilling; as it was when he was at the Royal Overseas League for a concert with a band that called themselves the Russian Virtuosi.
Russian virtuosity can be a hit and miss affair, and these performers summed it up, with super-energised but slapdash technical facility. Had they rehearsed, they might have been quite good. But it was Esfahani that I’d come to hear. And though he clearly wasn’t happy with the band, he ploughed through two concertos – Bach and Górecki; old and modern, as he likes to pair them – with dazzling brilliance. For the record, he had things to tell the audience about the music but provoked no riot this time. Perhaps London audiences are more laid back about what harpsichordists do.
If you’ve never seen a contrabass clarinet – and you probably haven’t – it looks like a saxophone but twice the size, and makes a sound so viscerally deep it could be someone’s indigestion playing up. There’s only one British performer known to specialise in playing it, the young Scott Lygate. And the other week at Cadogan Hall he premiered a new concerto for the instrument, written by the Bulgarian composer Martin Georgiev in the slow, spare manner of the so-called Holy Minimalists. I can’t pretend it made much impact beyond dark, sepulchral gloom. No doubt it helps to be Bulgarian to like that sort of thing.
You know it’s Christmas time when the Norwegian embassy in London suddenly goes into overdrive, supplying the tree in Trafalgar Square and accompanying it with a concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields which functions as a platform for Norwegian artists. This year brought a fine violist, Eivind Ringstad, playing Brahms. But more equivocally it also brought us Sølvguttene: a boys’ choir famous in its homeland. Dressed in sailor suits, the boys had charm; but vocally they were a disappointment, with no clarity, no definition, and poor intonation. I could name you 50 comparable choirs in Britain that outclass them. But it’s good to be reminded of the few things we still excel at.
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