Despite the cold Manchester evening, this was a performance full of warmth and sparkle, an appreciative audience at the Manchester Chamber Concerts Society’s programme at the Royal Northern College of Music, treated to an evening of music spanning the Baroque and early Classical periods. Showcasing both obscure and better-known works, the concert brought together the hugely talented Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord) and Adam Walker (flute) to exhibit their impressive artistry.
Commencing with Couperin’s Concert Royal no. 4 in E minor, the obvious chemistry between the two musicians was clear; Walker displaying wonderfully smooth phrasing and delicately delivered ornamentation throughout the opening Prelude, whilst Esfahani showed a tremendous balance between daintiness and sonority through sprightly and lively interplay between the instruments. Couperin composed his Concerts Royaux “for the chamber concerts of Louis XIV” and transporting oneself back to the 1720s (at least aurally) was not incomprehensible. The Courante Italienne required true dexterity, with waves of florid passages executed with aplomb. The Sarabande demanded delicate poise and truly expressive melodic delivery. On this evidence, it was no surprise that Walker was appointed Principal Flute of the LSO at the age of just 21. The Rigaudon in E major was cheerful and folk-like, while the Forlane rondeau was initiated by Esfahani helpfully tapping out the rhythm on the side of his instrument to assist Walker – a nice moment of musical fraternalism.
A recent interview saw Esfahani pressed on whether the harpsichord was still relevant today – in response, he launched a stout defence of his instrument and, on this showing, I feel obliged to concur. His technique throughout demonstrated a level of virtuosity more commonly associated with the repertoire of the pianoforte.
Two Capriccios from the somewhat forgotten composer Johann Quantz followed. Requiring finesse and adroitness, no. 8 in B flat major permitted a rare opportunity to hear the flute played in an almost Paganini-esque manner. No. 5 in G major was more studious than capricious, bringing to mind the flautist’s equivalent of Carl Czerny’s studies for piano, however this pleasing miniature did contain flourishes of virtuosity, the subsequent cadence which brought the piece to a sudden conclusion particularly well judged.
Another collector’s item followed – Benda’s Sonata for Flute and Continuo in E minor. The opening Largo underlined the advancing complexity of the musical language, mainly in the form of melodic decorations and rhythmic syncopations. The Arioso un poco allegro was jaunty and incorporated more challenging harpsichord passages (an attempt to test Frederick’s playing capabilities.) The Presto saw the music growing ever more expansive, exploring a greater dynamic range. Both musicians hurtled gracefully through this playful final movement, call and answer dialogue between the two instruments adding to a sense of forward propulsion. It felt as though someone was gradually adding colours to a previously monochrome scene.
The first half of the concert concluded with JS Bach’s Sonata in E minor BWV 1034. Comprising four movements, this piece is one of 4 in the BACH-Gesellschaft edition which is considered authentic. The Adagio was plaintive, a sentimental melodic line delivered over a pedestrian bass line. The following Allegro (one of two) was sprightly and energetic – the harpsichord suddenly coming to life. A slower Andante in G major followed, more peaceful in character and typically Baroque in its ornamentation. A marvellously co-ordinated cadence led to the final Allegro, being of a hurrying, questing nature as though searching urgently for some hidden answer.
Post-interval, appeared two musical portraits of Antoine Forqueray – a formidable player of the bass viol in his time. Presumably, his technique was sufficiently impressive to have inspired two such works, the composers being Duphly and Rameau respectively. Fascinatingly, there was a striking contrast in these depictions. Duphly’s tribute was a shapely and serious-minded rondeau in F minor, whilst Rameau portrayed Forqueray with a brilliant, sparkling fugue in D minor.
Following a (brief) solo performance from Walker in the first half, it was pleasing to witness the inspired technique of Esfahani here. Duphly’s composition is a suitably melancholy affair, Rameau’s work a bustling fugue which showcased an impressive cross-handed technique.
The penultimate item was Philidor’s Suite for Flute and Continuo in E minor. Although quite obscure, this was an excellent account of the suite – evocative, expressive and with a telepathic symmetry. A last-minute change to the programme saw Bach’s A major sonata inserted as a late substitute. The three movements contained a wide spectrum of emotional range, tone colours and harmonies. An interrupted cadence at the close of the second movement was resolved with brio and energy in the lively final movement, both musicians culminating their evening’s work in a highly satisfying A major conclusion.
In summary, a very enjoyable evening provided by two outstanding artists. As my companion remarked to me amidst the concluding backdrop of applause: “music of the gods”.