By JAMES R. OESTREICH
Attitude may not be the trait you most expect to find in a harpsichordist. Yet the Iranian-born Mahan Esfahani, 32, often seems to be spoiling for a fight.
He routinely challenges audiences with, say, half a program of more or less contemporary music, as he did in the small Buttenwieser Hall at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday night. At every opportunity he bashes what he calls, in a program note, “the self-segregated realm of early music.” And whatever uproar may ensue, Mr. Esfahani will probably not shy away.
Before the final work on his program — a transcription of Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase,” of 1968, with Mr. Esfahani playing against his own recorded track of the first keyboard part — he spoke of an earlier performance at which “a lot of people made clear that they didn’t like it.” That was in Cologne, Germany, in February 2016, when a staid Sunday afternoon audience turned raucous, with some listeners shouting and stomping out in protest, and others clamoring for Mr. Esfahani’s right to be heard.
“I’ve dined out on that for the last year or so,” he told his listeners at the Y. And the tale, of course, inoculates him against loud mutterings from other audiences, who do not wish to be compared to the benighted Germans.
The only shouts here were occasional encouraging yelps, as Mr. Esfahani made his way from a conventionally antiquarian opening, with Thomas Tomkins’s Pavan in A and Giles Farnaby’s “Woody-Cock,” through a somewhat conservative modern coupling — Henry Cowell’s “Set of Four” (1960) and Viktor Kalabis’s “Three Aquarelles” (1979) — and back to Bach’s magisterial Toccata in C minor (BWV 911).
Speaking before the Bach, Mr. Esfahani again threw jabs at the early-music crowd, dissing authenticity and historicity. Noting that he plays Bach differently in the company of works by living composers, he said, “I give you completely inauthentic Bach, but Bach which is authentic to me.”
Here he protested perhaps too much. Though his Bach was indeed notable, and captivating, for the liberties it took with pacing and expression, it was hardly out of line with current experimentation by inbred early-musickers. Still, the attitude, as it came across here, was most refreshing.
And so, on to Mr. Reich’s “Piano Phase”: It was easy to imagine how the insistent jangling repetition might grate on the ears of listeners not particularly attuned to the Minimalist idiom — or, for that matter, to the harpsichord. Though the audience seemed mostly game and initially enthralled, a certain restlessness became palpable in some quarters through the work’s 20 minutes or so.
Yet even the most disparaging listener could only have admired Mr. Esfahani’s discipline and close concentration as he moved out of phase with the taped performance in minuscule increments and then, ever so slowly, drifted back in. The ovation was intense and seemingly universal.
And Mr. Esfahani offered a further reward, utterly unproblematic and lovely: an encore of Rameau’s Gavotte With Variations in A minor.