We spoke with acclaimed harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, as he gets ready to perform CPE Bach with us in Gamechangers: A Forgotten Revolutionary on Thursday 30 January.
How did you get into music?
My father was a musician, so I suppose I can’t remember when I wasn’t ‘into music’. It was always there.
When did you realize you wanted to make music your career?
Actually, quite recently, I think. When I came to Britain I wasn’t sure, even then, that I wanted to stick with it. But the New Generation Artists scheme at Radio 3 was a big encouragement, and yet I always had misgivings.
I would say that in spite of all the concerts, the recording career starting very nicely, two Proms, the daily conversation that I would have with myself, when waking up – whether or not to continue this path – has probably stopped …only in the last few months. Honest.
What do you fear the most?
London Underground platforms. I always wait in the hallway until the train has arrived. I also am just about the most nervous plane passenger you have ever seen, which is ironic when you consider that I spend a lot of time on airplanes. I also don’t like riding in cars very much. I guess you could say that I have a bit of a problem with agoraphobia!
When you’re not busy performing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Actually, I like playing the harpsichord in my spare time, believe it or not. I also cook a lot and like to have friends over. I read a great deal and study languages.
Who’s your musical hero?
My own teacher, Zuzana Růžičková, because she lives everything she wants to see in the world through making music.
Sviatoslav Richter and Wanda Landowska for their fearlessness. Joseph Haydn, because he never stopped trying to perfect himself.
What was the last good film you saw?
A Serious Man, by the Coen Brothers. I love that film. I haven’t been getting to the movies much these days, whereas I used to go quite regularly…
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
Nothing set in stone. I drink (and expel) a lot of black tea. I joke with the backstage staff. I get dressed five minutes before I have to go on stage. I tend to read The New Statesman or The Economist. I make origami.
If you could choose to work in a different profession, what would it be and why?
I would quite like to have explored the option of being in policy-making of some kind, or the diplomatic corps. A dream profession would be to be a travel writer.
What’s the most obscure album you own?
I have a cassette tape made from a very poorly-preserved 78 rpm record of a little-known American harpsichordist, Lewis Richards, playing Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith. If memory serves correctly, it’s from the mid-1920s. It’s really ripping playing.
What was your worst ever concert?
Well obviously I can’t mention the venue or presenter, but there was once a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that seemed to come from Mars in every way you can imagine. The funny thing is that this recital came after quite a few performances of the work which were all really ranging from rather satisfactory to excellent (if I may say so myself!). So, I have no idea what happened. To make it worse, my parents were in the audience. Oof, what an evening that was. And the last variation was plagued by an endless car alarm.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I bought the Ligeti Project on 5 CDs, issued on Teldec. I didn’t really know certain works such as the Chamber Concerto, the Piano Concerto, Apparitions, San Francisco Polyphony, so it’s been great sinking my teeth into this.
Which book do you think everybody should read?
Anything by Tolstoy.
What’s special about CPE Bach?
He’s impossible to pin down from an aesthetic and intellectual perspective, but when our hearts respond to his music, we also know that our minds must be in tandem with these feelings. It’s really quite complex.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
Focus and forget the trappings of being a musician. Give everything materially, emotionally, spiritually to your music. Being a musician is a calling; take a page from the Lives of the Saints.
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