Some musicians go further than others in shaping their own recitals or albums; studying autograph manuscripts; writing programme notes; restlessly questioning the way a familiar work is played. As a solo harpsichordist, aiming to bring the instrument back into the mainstream, the Iranian-American Mahan Esfahani has commissioned new works and revisited old in myriad ways. On his latest album, Bach: Italian Concerto & French Overture (Hyperion), he examines the task of Bach’s engravers and copyists, possible errors that arise, and how the performer should interpret them. The double question of what is authentic and what is musical is at the heart of Esfahani’s always lively and inexhaustible interrogations.
Playing a 2018 instrument made in Prague, where he now lives, Esfahani gives grandeur and clarity to Bach’s familiar Italian Concerto. The short opening movement sounds pliant and majestic, the slow movement a sensuous dialogue between fluid, exploratory right hand and the steadying, lute-like left. In the last-movement presto, Esfahani takes wing at top speed and with glittering virtuosity. The colours he brings to all the works here – including the capriccio in B flat “on the departure of his beloved brother” – make us revel anew in the sonic capabilities of the harpsichord.
Inspired by her own tendency as a child to tell her secrets not to a toy but to her violin, Lisa Batiashvili’s Secret Love Letters with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) brings together works united by a strong pull that Batiashvili identifies as love. Two works, César Franck’s Sonata in A major and Debussy’s tiny Beau Soir, are for violin and piano. Two are for soloist and orchestra: Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1 and Chausson’s Poème.
We benefit from Yannick Nézet-Séguin as both conductor and ever probing pianist. He and Batiashvili find hidden corners to explore in the Franck, played with delicacy and passion by both. The Szymanowski, an outpouring of angst as well as warmth, and the Chausson, full of expressive longing, bring out the golden tone quality of soloist and orchestra alike.