Mahan Esfahani and the Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall

A concert of wonder after wonder

Mahan Esfahani and the Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall
Mahan Esfahani, photo © Kaja Smith

Bach Keyboard Concertos: Bach, Janitsch, Telemann, Marcello Mahan Esfahani (director/harpsichord); Jacqueline Shave (director/violin 1); Peter Facer (oboe); members of Britten Sinfonia. Wigmore Hall, 27.03.2024

Johann Gottlieb Janitsch (1708-63)

Quadro in G minor, ‘O Haupt Blut und Wunden’ 

J. S. Bach

Keyboard Concertos: in E, BWV 1053 (1738); in D minor, BWV 1059R (reconstructed Esfahani)


Violin Concerto in G minor, TWV 51:g1 

Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747)

Oboe Concerto in D minor, S D935 (by 1715) 

J. S. Bach

Keyboard Concerto in A, BWB 1056 (1738) 

Following on from a concert in November 2023, Mahan Esfahani continues his presentation of Bach Keyboard Concertos coupled with works by contemporaries of Bach’s; composers that inspired the Master and whose pieces complement him here.

Esfahani’s relationship with the Wigmore is a firm one: he received the Wigmore Medal, the youngest person to do so, in 2022 at the age of 38.  He combines a ferocious intellect and clear love for the repertoire he embraces; his recordings of Bach for Hyperion are justly lauded, How fascinating to begin with a piece by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch (1708-63), a member of the Prussian Court in Berlin; he was therefore a colleague of one of the great mavericks, C. P. E. Bach (1714-88). The piece heard here, Quadro in G-Minor, is scored for oboe, violin, viola and basso continuo; at times it sounds like a reduction of an oboe concerto, and Peter Facer was superb in projecting his lines. The subtitle reflects the work’s use of the Lutheran Lenten chorale, O Haupt von Blut und Wunden (O Sacred Head Now Wounded) in the work’s spellbidingly beautiful third movement (Adagio manon troppo); the oboe carried the melody, gracefully ornamented, while the strings garlanded it with gentle counterpoint. It might be familiar to many through Bach’s use of the chorale melody (itself by Hans Leo Hassler) in the Matthäus-Passion. How carefully this movement was sculpted, Lynda Sayce’s threorbo contribution was particularly noteworthy for its sense of style and grace. The sense of chamber music conversation in the second movement (an Allegretto) was palpable; the finale, a Vivace non troppo, poses many challenges. Tightness of decoration is as important as tightness of ensemble, and both were beyond criticism here. Although mostly in the gallant style, one of Janitsch’s feet seems to remain in the late Baroque; the combination is miraculous.  The Wigmore concert was sadly not recorded, but here is a performance of the Janitsch by Camerata Bachiensis (I would also recommend the recording by Die Freitagsakademie on Prospero, available as a download):

Bach’s Concerto in E, BWV 1053, finds its first two movements based on music from the cantata BWV 169: the opening sinfonia (link to the Harnoncourt/Concentus Musicus Wien performance, with rolling score) and the simply remarkable alto aria ‘Stirb in mir, Welt!’ (link to Bernarda Fink's Harmonia Mundi performance); the finale is based on the Sinfonia from the cantata, BWV 49 (‘Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen,’ which itself features a prominent organ part: link to Harnoncourt, again with score). Hearing the concerto played with single strings (two violins, viola, cello, double-bass, plus theorbo) was a revelation: textures were crystal clear, counterpoint suddenly made complete sense. The harpsichord used clearly had a stop for darkening the sound, effectively used; and how beautiful the close of the movement. The tempo for the central Siciliano felt perfect, and how potent the dissonances felt when put under the texture-microscope. Here, that countrapuntal clarity was heard at its best. The finale, marked Allegro, perhaps bordered on Presto, and worked perfectly, exciting, and perfectly balanced. 

Regarding that stop, incidentally, here are the details of Esfahani's instrument: it is from the workshop of Jukka Ollikka in Prague. Built in 2018 it is based on instruments by Michael Mietke (Berlin c.1660-1719) but with the hypothetical addition of an extra soundboard for the 16’ register.  The cheek area is inspired by Pleyel, designed to show the hands more easily.  It has four sets of strings, 16’, 8’, 8’, 4’ and two buff stops.

When it came to the ‘Concerto No. 8,’ an introduction was required. Bach abandoned the score (for harpsichord, oboe, and strings) after only a few bars; here, that fragment can be traced to the cantata BWV 35. We heard the fragment in isolation before hearing Esfahani’s completion/reconstruction. The addition of oboe brightens the texture; and, as Esfahani himself implied, taking on the task only emphasises how much we do not know about how Bach thought. Nevertheless, this worked beautifully, particularly perhaps the bustling finale. 

That was a long first half; the second was shorter, beginning with a Telemann gem: the G minor Violin Concerto with Jacqueline Shave as the fine soloist. The mix of the perfectly polished, gallant ripieno and the virtuoso violin was perfectly managed. The work is fascinating: it feels like when the violin enters there is a sudden spurt of unexpected speed, yet the ripieno will not be cowed into games, maintaining its quiet dignity at all times. The Adagio holds a solo violin melody that is surely sent as a gift from Heaven itself; Save’s control of line (and bow) was immaculate, as was her awareness of Affekt when Telemann does provide halting suspensions. There is a near-Bachian rigour to the opening of the finale; a moment when the viola (Clare Finnimore) takes on the bassline is pure magic. Telemann is a Master of the first rank, and how wonderful to hear that he suffered not a jot in juxtaposition with JSB. 

Here's the first movement, courtesy of Elizabeth Wallfisch and L'Orfeo Barockorchester on cpo:

The oboe concertos of Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello bring guaranteed delight in their wake. Bach arranged the Oboe Concerto in D minor for solo keyboard in 1715 (BWV 974). The sense of unity in the opening unison lines contrasted beautifully with the oboe’s florid lines, superbly delivered by Peter Facer, now in full-on solo mode, projecting perfectly. The central Adagio’s harmonic adventures, along with its sense of almost glassy strings, was a privilege to hear, Facer supremely eloquent, touches of rubato around harmonic arrivals and shifts perfectly calibrated. The famous finale bounced along fabulously, animated and, most importantly, as fresh as the day it was composed. A real tonic for any ailing spirits.  Here's Marcel Ponseele and Il Gardellino in the first movement, in an admittedly rather echoey recording:

Finally (no encore), the Concerto in A, BWV 1055 in a radiant performance. For all of the perfect construction of the opening Allegro, it was the elaborate keyboard line of the central Larghetto that spoke most deeply, a profound, bejeweled wonder. Perhaps the finale felt a little swift, losing a touch of its courtliness,  

A concert of wonder after wonder, therefore. The Janitsch and the Telemann were Cartier-like adornments to Bach of the finest order, the Marcello a capsule of perfection, and the music by the man himself could hardly ask for finer performances. 

Mahan Esfahani and Britten Sinfonia continue their Bach Cycle with a third concert at Saffron Hall and Wigmore Hall in June 2024 (8th and 12th respectively). While ACE might have cut funding, the Briten Sinfonia continues to flourish.