60 seconds with Mahan Esfahani
How did you choose the programme for 24 May?
Actually, when LSO St Luke's asked me for a Bach programme, I really wanted to put together something that showed Bach in his different voices or colours, so to speak. I had always been attracted to the 'heavy' side of Bach, the dour, stern-faced cantor. Over time I realised that this was an incomplete and even incorrect view of the man. We know Bach enjoyed life, what with his weight (he enjoyed food) and his 20-odd children (he also enjoyed, let's say, 'other pleasures'). The more I began to study the Well-Tempered Clavier I started to realise that Bach can be sardonic, witty, and playful. The Fifth Partita shows this side of Bach the 'gallant' very well indeed. With the transcription of the Sonata BWV 1003 – in this programme as a work in d-minor with the catalogue number of BWV 964 – I thought that the many-sidedness of Bach includes a look at the manifold possibilities of his musical ideas. What was a work for violin becomes a work for the keyboard, and the 'message of Bach' shines through.
What does Bach’s music mean to you?
I'm forever impressed that Bach, in spite of all the vicissitudes of life and of the general difficulties of existence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, seemed to have a great faith in something much greater than himself. Bach's music is a great lesson in the value of discipline and the exercise of the brain.
What made you decide to become a harpsichordist?
I'm not really sure. It just sort of happened. I always was attracted to the sound of the harpsichord, but I didn't ever think I'd make a profession of actually playing it.
What qualities do you like best about the sound of the harpsichord?
I suppose what I like about the harpsichord are the very qualities that make it a difficult instrument to play. There's a great nuance, clarity, and precision to the sound, but various combinations of tones, played in equally various ways, can make for a rather sensuous and incredibly mellifluous timbres that I think we do not typically associate with such an instrument. I like the fact that I can use the instrument to change people's preconceptions and even misconceptions about this instrument.
How does it compare playing Bach on a harpsichord as opposed to a piano?
I have no particular opinion on that question. People expect me to consider piano some form of heresy, which I don't. I rather like the piano.
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
I've never really had any problems with nervousness. I eat a banana, drink some water, and tend to get dressed within the last five minutes or so right before the concert. I like to joke backstage with members of the hall staff and keep in mind the idea that I'm here to engage in a public conversation about the music I'm playing (except that I'm the only one who gets to talk, of course - the ideal debate!). I sometimes read articles or books completely unrelated to the music, just to keep my mind on other things before it's time to grapple with the composer at hand.
Mahan will be performing at LSO St Luke's on 24 May at 1pm.