Over the last two years, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has been reading his way through the writings of John Cage. From them he developed the idea for this fresh and provocative recital: three new works, all composed for Esfahani, alongside 20th-century classics for the harpsichord by Berio and Cage – all of them pieces in which many of the decisions about how the music should be played are left to the performer’s discretion.
Electronics and digital sampling feature prominently, too. In Quadroforone No 1, by the Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen, Esfahani’s hyperactive live harpsichord meshes with prerecorded and transformed versions of itself, creating dense, pulsing textures somewhere between the early minimalism of Steve Reich and the complex canonic writing of Conlon Nancarrow. Anahita Abbasi’s Intertwined Distances takes a more radical line with the prerecorded harpsichord transformations, providing a confrontational backdrop to the equally explosive live element.
There were no electronics in Berio’s tumbling miniature Rounds – a single page without clefs, that’s played through normally, then upside down, and finally the right way up again but faster – nor in Miroslav Srnka’s rather dated and unconvincing Triggering, in which the harpsichord is “prepared” with objects placed on its strings. But one of the solos from Cage’s evening-long HPSCHD not only surrounded the live instruments with a torrent of prerecorded sound, but used a computerised version of the I Ching to fix many of the performance parameters. Esfahani chose a solo that required him to practise and play something by Mozart; he’d opted for the D minor Fantasia, whose fragments emerged from the welter of the electronic sounds that threatened to overwhelm them.