PKF – Prague Philharmonia
Date of EventFriday, 29. 5. 2020 from 20.00
Expected end of the concert 22.00
Event placeRudolfinum – Dvořák Hall
Price300 - 900 CZK
- Bohuslav Martinů: Toccata e Due Canzoni H 311
- Joseph Haydn: Harpsichord Concerto in D major Hob. XVIII:11
- Benjamin Britten: Suite on English Folk Tunes “A Time There Was” op. 90
- Michael Nyman: Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings
- Jiří Rožeň - conductor
- Mahan Esfahani - harpsichord
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“Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani is a phenomenal musician who, on an international level, succeeded in bringing the solo harpsichord right back into the midst of events,” says festival dramaturge Josef Třeštík. His words are supported by the almost implausible fact that Esfahani’s appearance at the BBC Proms in 2011 was the first ever harpsichord recital in the long history of this famous London festival.
Esfahani has a close affinity with Czech culture – his mentor for four years was Zuzana Růžičková. “Like Růžičková, Mahan has a fondness for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the English virginalists. On the other hand, he also feels quite at home performing the most challenging of contemporary music, which many composers write expressly for him,” states Třeštík. Outside the country he is often involved in performances of works by Czech composers, such as Jiří Antonín Benda, Bohuslav Martinů, Viktor Kalabis and, most recently, Miroslav Srnka, who wrote a piece especially for Esfahani at the latter’s request.
Currently residing in Prague, he was born in Tehran, spent his childhood in the United States and lived for a time in Milan and London. He is the type of artist who takes an interest in a given work in all its aspects, as his studies testify: apart from the harpsichord he also read musicology and music theory.
Esfahani’s recent successes include his debut in Vienna’s Musikverein and a tour with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. “The word ʽtoccataʼ, as Esfahani points out, derives from the Italian ʽtoccareʼ, meaning ʽto touchʼ, and it’s the physicality of his music-making that seems so right, both for his instrument and the music of a composer clearly delighting in muscle-flexing of his own,” comments Geoff Brown in The Times in his review of Esfahani’s recording of the Bach Toccatas. His colourful discography of around six titles for Hyperion and Deutsche Grammophon has won a series of important awards from the likes of Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine, along with a Diapason d’Or.
Mahan Esfahani – video
“Jiří Rožeň is one of the most talented Czech conductors of his generation for whom an extremely promising international career began before he reached the age of thirty,” states Josef Třeštík. Festivalgoers will remember his performance at his Prague Spring Debut concert in 2016. This year’s festival concert brings together works by British and Central European composers. “The programme will open with Suite on English Folk Tunes, a late work by Benjamin Britten which isn’t very well known over here. This will be followed by Haydn’s harpsichord concerto, in which Esfahani will play the cadenzas that Britten wrote for the concerto. The latter half of the concert will begin with a ʽtour de forceʼ of harpsichord literature, the Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings by contemporary English composer Michael Nyman, who gained popularity in this country chiefly for his scores for films by Peter Greenaway. The evening will conclude with Toccata e due canzoni by Bohuslav Martinů, a piece whose repetitive structures are perhaps somewhat reminiscent of Nyman’s minimalist style.”
Despite his age, Czech conductor Jiří Rožeň (1991) is already a distinctive figure in professional conducting circles. He worked with the PKF – Prague Philharmonia most recently in June 2019, when together they presented works by Mozart, Martinů and Beethoven. The 2019/2020 season sees Rožeň appearing with ensembles such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The young conductor enjoys performing contemporary music and works by 20th century Czech composers. He has already met Mahan professionally – they got together for Viktor Kalabis’s Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra Op. 42 in 2018. The two artists became acquainted in Great Britain, which was home for Esfahani for several years, while Rožeň was over there studying and also gaining valuable experience conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was extremely successful both in the sphere of opera (Peter Grimes, Billy Bud, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and in instrumental music. Earlier in his career he became celebrated for his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Sinfonia da Requiem or the highly popular Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. His Suite on English Folk Tunes “A Time There Was…” emerged much later – between 1973, when Britten underwent heart surgery, and 1976, the year of the composer’s death. Consisting of five parts, the suite is inspired by English folk songs and is dedicated to Australian composer Percy Grainger, whom Britten knew in person. Britten’s musical language blends several styles, yet is chiefly founded on Neo-Classical concepts. His music is well-liked by the public – apart from his maturity of expression, it also betrays considerable emotionality, as reflected in Britten’s own words: “It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love.”
One of Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) most popular concertos for keyboard instruments is Keyboard Concerto in D major. The final Allegro assai, labelled Rondo all’ Ungarese, is characteristic of the piece. The music is inspired by the region of southern Austria, where Haydn lived for a time. Haydn wrote copiously for keyboard instruments, his oeuvre comprising numerous concertos for harpsichord, organ and piano, among others. This concert will feature the modern premiere of the cadenzas by Benjamin Britten which he wrote in the years 1943-1944 for harpsichordist Lucille Wallace; the cadenzas were long considered lost and their revival on the concert platform will make for a historic occasion.
Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings is one of three works featured on the album Concertos by British composer Michael Nyman (1944). This release from 1997, Nyman’s 31st at that point, also contains Double Concerto for Saxophone and Cello and Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra. Nyman’s music passed through an extended period of development and Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings reflects above all the composer’s many years’ experience with film music. Nyman moreover works with a specific type of rhythmical mechanical structure and, in places, treats the harpsichord like a percussion instrument. Interestingly, in terms of the piece’s harmonic aspects, we will hear certain parallels with Martinů’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra, which come out primarily in the repeated chromatic progressions.
Toccata e due canzoni appeared during the course of 1946, when Martinů remained on his own in the United States while his wife Charlotte left for France. He was thinking about following her and returning to Europe in October 1946, and in the meantime he composed and taught at Searles Castle in the town of Great Barrington. The work on Toccata e due canzoni had to be interrupted for a while, however, after Martinů had an accident and suffered severe concussion; it wasn’t until during his convalescence in New York that he completed the piece on 11 October 1946. “It proved difficult for me to continue with the composition,” he later wrote in the programme for the work’s premiere. “I changed the score radically and reworked it several times. The writing itself was incredibly hard because the injury meant I couldn’t move my head.” The Toccata was commissioned by the Basel Chamber Orchestra and was premiered in January 1947 to huge acclaim.