Mahan Esfahani

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The American harpsichordist on his reverence for Bach and recording Poulenc's Concert champêtre

Our May cover CD featured a programme of Bach's Partita No. 4, BWV 828 and Poulenc's Concert champêtre, recorded by the Radio 3 New Generation Artist Mahan Esfahani

What do you particularly enjoy in Bach’s Partita No. 4?

Not that I've lived all that long, but Bach has been with me from the beginning of my consciousness, and I hope that the rest of my life will be spent in the service of his remarkable contribution to humanity.

Bach’s music is great because it's really better than what any of us can do with it, and yet it can withstand some rather major abuse and sensationalism as well. His Partitas, for example, contain all these transferences of orchestral and vocal idioms to the keyboard, and yet what could the music be but perfect for the keyboard?

I find it hard to take seriously the attitude that Bach didn't care about which medium he was writing for; as far as I can tell, it seems that he really understood his media, perhaps better than we do.

What stands out for you about Poulenc’s Concert champêtre?

It was the first concerto-writing experience for a composer who had yet to turn 30, and it's striking how he understood the harpsichord and exploited the beauty of the plucked string.

Of course, in a way, Poulenc used the harpsichord to suggest nostalgia and the idea of the Baroque as understood by the early 20th century. He’s making a slight joke about the heavy-handedness of the approach of some to Baroque music; but, in fact, I don't think he's joking as much as everyone thinks. In some ways in this concerto he is dead serious.

The effect of the second movement in particular is poignant and filled with this sincere sadness that I find even more painful in considering the 'second' lost world (as opposed to the first one of the 18th century) of inter-war France that was to die a handful of years after this concerto.

What do you think of the 1912 Pleyel harpsichord that Poulenc’s friend and inspiration for the Concert champêtre, Wanda Landowska, used for the premiere of the work?

Landowska could not have captured the imagination of the audiences of her time without something as colourful as the Pleyel. I would, of course, consider using a Pleyel were they more available for concert use. But I feel perfectly fine playing a work such as Poulenc's concerto on a more classically-oriented copy. I'm not sure how Landowska would have felt about it, but I think Poulenc would have probably approved.

Is it difficult to balance the orchestra with the harpsichord in the Poulenc?

Yes and no. It's actually quite remarkable how Poulenc figured out how to write for the harpsichord in a full orchestral setting. Both the solo moments and the combinations of orchestral and harpsichord sounds are quite effective. While I haven't seen Poulenc's drafts or working score of the work I'd like to think that Landowska and her basically maternal attitude toward Poulenc had something to do with it. I believe I read somewhere a claim by Landowska that Poulenc brought the score to her and she went over it with him 'note by note'. I'm sure a formidable woman such as Landowska would have been free with her pencil and eraser. She probably sent the young Poulenc out with a few francs to buy some cheese and bread for lunch while she 'fixed' a few things in the score.

Interview by Alice Pearson

Audio clip: Poulenc: Concert champetre – Finale
Image: Marco Borggreve

Related links:
CD Review: Poulenc: Concert champêtre with soloist Pascal Rogé
CD Review: Poulenc: Concert champêtre with soloist Ton Koopman
CD Review: Bach: Partita No. 4, BWV 282