Wednesday, 16 October 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: The Britten Sinfonia with Mahan Esfahani - Leeds College Of Music, Leeds.


Once seated in this stylish yet functional auditorium, I started to think about the upcoming performance. Having not been to a chamber music concert for 7 or 8 years, I was quite excited to see what Mahan Esfahani and members of the Britten Sinfonia had to offer. On stage sat a beautifully decorated harpsichord, in black with gold lining, with a red interior. Out comes Mr. Esfahani, to explain the format of the concert, and welcome us to the opening of the Leeds International Concert Series. And on we go.

The concert opened with Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE) Bach’s Quartet for Viola, Flute, Cello and Harpsichord Wq 93, a wonderfully vibrant opening showing us the dexterity of the harpsichord, and the wonderful colours of the quartet. A beautifully balanced ensemble leaves no stone unturned in this performance, with all the individual voices popping up to say their bit and then settle back into the group. The three-movement work draws to a close with a very exciting unison passage and a flurry to the end. A rousing applause from the audience sees the ensemble with beaming smiles, heading back into the wings.

Once again appeared Esfahani, armed with a microphone, and he excitedly comes to tell us about the next piece of music that he, and eventually the ensemble are about to perform. Written by Johann Sebastian (JS) Bach, in 1747, after being challenged by the then king of Potsdam, Frederick II, on his talent for improvising a fugue (which in itself is staggeringly impressive). Frederick II played a long and complex musical theme, on which he requested JS Bach play a three-voice fugue. He did so, but the King challenged him then to improvise a six-voice fugue on the same theme. Bach, unable to improvise in six voices said he would need to work on it and send it to the king at a later date. Two months later, Bach published a set of pieces based on the theme which is now known as ‘The Musical Offering’ based on what would later be nick-named, ‘The Kings Theme’ or as Bach called it, ‘The theme given by the King, with additions, resolved in the canonic style.’

Esfahani then sat and began to play this wonderful piece of music, full of dexterity, periodic trills, flamboyant arpeggiated sections and of course, the theme in three voices. After a brief pause, he started again, this time the six-voice fugue, which was staggering. The ability to play music across 6 staves of music at the same time boggles the mind and can only be truly mastered by someone at the peak of their game. Showing incredible skill and wonderful passion for the music, Esfahani had the audience on the edge of their seats as he rattled his way through this genuinely stunning rendition of the challenging work. As he finished the whole building shook into applause and celebration of his feat. We had just witnessed something great. But that wasn’t it! He then invited three members from the Britten Sinfonia back onto the stage as they performed the Sonata ‘Sopr’Il Soggetto Reale’ which featured a flute (Thomas Hancox), a violin, (Thomas Gould [orchestra leader]) and a cello, (Caroline Dearnley [principal cello]). This exciting, vibrant, tour-de-force had the four musicians, who were wonderfully in sync, flying around their instruments, while keeping stylistic, transporting us back to the 18th century as we were treated to this collaborative effort, which once finished, had the audience applauding for over 5 minutes.

To calm things down, and take us to the intermission, we were treated to excerpts from Richard Strauss’ opera, Capriccio, which when written was meant to be a poignant reminder of the ‘lost world’ of the past in the midst of the second world war. This was a well-crafted and impeccably executed performance, leading us very excitedly into the intermission.

An unusually large crowd gathered around the harpsichord as it was tuned, making the poor chap’s job much harder as they all spoke over him, and asked him questions. Why would you do that?

After the tuner had finished, the audience all sat back down. Esfahani appeared with Thomas Gould, who was here to wow us with his virtuosic prowess, performing Walter Piston’s Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord. A cheerful and optimistic piece in the composers postwar style, that stunned the audience. Gould’s talent radiated throughout the hall, dazzling us with musicality, technique and of course, a touch of showmanship.

This sadly led us to the evening’s finale. Which involved the members of the Britten Sinfonia once more. Esfahani introduced the work, Manuel de Falla’s spiky and intense, ‘Concerto for Harpsichord and five instruments’ joining him on the stage once again, were Thomas Gould, Thomas Hancox, Caroline Dearney, and we were introduced to the Sinfonia’s principal clarinettist, Joy Farrall and oboist, Peter Facer. This piece not only showed us more of Esfahani’s talent, and dexterity, but the talent spread across the whole orchestra. Wonderful interjecting solo lines from the oboe, clarinet and flute, intertwining in Falla’s thrilling work, at points the ensemble overpowered the delicate sound of the harpsichord, but for the most part, it worked wonderfully. This piece which effortlessly fluttered between time signatures and modulated as if it were as easy as cooking toast, showered the audience with a brilliantly emotive, exciting and impeccable performance of the concerto. Bravo.

Mahan Esfahani has been appointed musical director of the LICS for this concert season, and the lineup of events that the team have put together is going to make for a great season, and I wish them all the best.

Reviewer - Simon Oliver
on - 15/10/19

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