When he was a small boy of eight or nine, Mahan Esfahani picked up a book with a picture of a portly gent in a wig and frock-coat, playing an unfamiliar musical instrument with two keyboards. It was love at first sight. “Bach seemed so different and exotic. I had never heard the harpsichord. My father laughed and said it was a dead instrument. But I was already smitten.”
Fast-forward two decades and the harpsichord is the life’s mission of that Iranian-American boy – born in Tehran, raised in Washington DC – now resident in London. Today he is firmly established as one of the world’s leading harpsichordists. And, at only 30, one of the youngest. On 11 May 2015 he makes his Deutsche Grammophon debut with the release of Time Past and Time Present. Inspired by the poetry of TS Eliot, the album “honours the instrument as one which spans all times and aesthetics”. Its repertoire draws not only on the Baroque composers of the 17th and 18th centuries (Scarlatti, Bach, Handel) but also on the minimalists of the 20th century (Górecki, Reich).
The album is the result of a vocation that began the day he discovered that picture as a boy. The next day he went to his local library to look at harpsichord scores. Then he listened to a cassette. “The second I heard it, I thought: ‘That’s me, that’s exactly how I can express myself – this is what I want to play and this is how I want to play it.’” He began collecting cassettes, CDs and records, listening to everything he could find. At 11, already a proficient pianist and organist, he heard a harpsichord being played live for the first time, at a performance of Handel’s Messiah. He asked permission to go onstage and touch the instrument. The experience further fuelled his passion. “I knew this was what I wanted to do. But I thought there was no way I’d be able to do it.”
His parents – a musician and painter, who had left Iran when he was four and now worked as civil servants for the US government – had other ideas for their only son. He studied medicine at Stanford but switched to law after two weeks before switching again, to musicology, largely because the faculty had a harpsichord and an emeritus professor, George Houle, who became his mentor and made him believe he could pursue the instrument as a career. “I took lessons and spent all my spare time in the harpsichord room. I had a key and played all night. At home I listened to every recording I could find, playing them at half-speed, then marking out the score, and watching films of people playing on YouTube. Whenever harpsichordists passed through San Francisco I would take lessons with them, and I would spend my vacations taking courses. I was obsessed.”
After graduating in 2005, Mahan moved to Boston and studied daily for two and a half years with Peter Watchorn, final student of the great Viennese harpsichordist Isolde Ahlgrimm. Desperate to move to Europe, he won a scholarship to study organ under Lorenzo Ghielmi, and began coaching opera singers in Florence and Milan. At a recital in Tuscany in 2007 he was invited to England as a BBC New Generation Artist. Having moved first to Oxford, and later to London, Mahan made his solo debut at Wigmore Hall in 2009, and gave a historic solo harpsichord recital at the Proms in 2011. He continues to study in Prague with the celebrated Zuzana Růžičková, the first harpsichordist he ever heard – on that Scarlatti cassette when he was a child – and still his biggest inspiration. “A total legend. She taught me what it means to live the life of an artist with dedication and commitment and real love for what you do. I owe her absolutely everything.”
That dedication and commitment can be seen in his ascetic lifestyle. Mahan rises early and goes to bed late. He no longer touches tobacco, alcohol or caffeine. He spends his days practising at his south London home, and reads Russian literature late into the night. And he firmly believes that we should celebrate classical music for its heritage, rather than trying to make it trendy. “I’m very very proud to make classical music and I never apologise for it,” he declares. “I just don’t think people should feel as if they’re stupid if they don’t ‘get’ it. I’m not going to call Bach a ‘dude’ and talk about his 20 children: it’s OK to present him as an old man in a wig. People in the 18th century were different and you don’t have to try and make them seem relevant today. All that stuff about being cool and taking a photo of the audience with your iPhone ’cause that’s so hip, and putting it on Twitter – that’s not going to do anything for this music. A lot of trends and fads and personalities fade into the background over time, but what’s timeless remains – and Bach is timeless. My endgame is for people to hear why this instrument is awesome, and why this music is awesome.”
As for those who might share his father’s view of the harpsichord as a “dead instrument”, Mahan has an answer: he gives them free tickets. “I want people to put their assumptions away and come away from a concert saying: ‘You know what – the harpsichord is beautiful’. And they do.”