Before COVID-19, There Was Harpsichord. And Mahan Esfahani’s Tiny Desk Concert
BY TOM HUIZENGA
The harpsichord is a beautiful but notoriously fussy instrument. After we wheeled one behind Bob Boilen’s desk, it took the bulk of an hour to get the tuning just perfect for the very first Tiny Desk harpsichord recital. Given that our guest was Mahan Esfahani, the instrument’s most ardent advocate, we were willing to wait.
Esfahani, who grew up near Washington, D.C., but is now based in Prague, chose a double manual harpsichord — meaning two keyboards. This one was built by specialists Barbara and Thomas Wolf in 1991, but is based on a famous French instrument from 1770.
The carefully selected repertoire began with classics: a pair of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, which share the same key but couldn’t be more opposite in personality. With elaborate curlicue ornaments in both hands, the opening sonata presents a sober, regal outlook. Its partner is a flamboyant rocker, with the hands chasing each other across the two keyboards like a cat and mouse.
Esfahani made sure to also include a modern piece. Mel Powell’s angular and slightly jazzy “Recitative and Toccata Percossa,” from 1951, is a tour de force in this artist’s hands. It drives home a point he likes to make — that while the harpsichord had its heyday in the 18th century, it’s still a vibrant instrument and very much alive. “There are over 50 modern concertos for the harpsichord,” he told the audience.
Returning to the baroque, Esfahani closed with a little-known chaconne by Johann Pachelbel. Its steady bassline and colorful variations were a pleasant reminder of the composer’s one-hit claim to fame, “Pachelbel’s Canon.” Although the music stopped there, Esfahani’s performance continued as he stayed for a while behind the desk, happily regaling the harpsichord-curious on the finer points of the instrument.
- Domenico Scarlatti: “Sonata in D, K. 534”
- Domenico Scarlatti: “Sonata in D, K. 535”
- Mel Powell: “Recitative and Toccata Percossa”
- Johann Pachelbel: “Chaconne”
Mahan Esfahani: harpsichord
Producers: Tom Huizenga, Morgan Noelle Smith, Kara Frame; Creative director: Bob Boilen; Audio engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Kara Frame, Maia Stern, Melany Rochester, Shanti Hands; Editor: Melany Rochester; Associate Producer: Bobby Carter; Production Assistant: Shanti Hands; Executive producer: Lauren Onkey; VP, programming: Anya Grundmann; Photo: Kisha Ravi/NPR