Brecon Baroque Festival: ‘In the Name of Bach’ with Bojan Cicic and Mahan Esfahani

Christ College, Brecon, October 26 2014

Bojan Čičić – violin / viola d’amore
Mahan Esfahani – harpsichord

Franz Benda: Somata for Violin in A major
CPE Bach: Harpsichord Sonata in F sharp minor Wq 52
CPE Bach: Sonata for violin in B minor Wq 76
Franz Benda: Sonata for viola d’amore and basso continuo in D major
JG Graun: Sonata for violin and basso continuo in G minor
CPE Bach: Sonata for violin in C major Wq 73


CPE Bach has long and unjustly languished in his father’s shadow. However, in his day, it was he rather than JS who was known as the ‘great Bach’. Indeed, it was CPE, not Bach senior, about whom Mozart made his own, famous ‘papa’ comment: ‘Bach is the father, we are the children’. The evening of October 26 offered a treat indeed with a recital by Brecon Baroque’s second violinist, the extremely capable Bojan Čičić (pictured to the right of Rachel Podger above), and Mahan Esfahani – who is not just one of the world’s leading harpsichordists, but one of the most brilliant and profoundly musical instrumentalists I have ever had the pleasure to hear.* After a first half which was slow-burning for the violinist, yet still hugely satisfying – and dramatically interrupted by the collapse of an audience member – Čičić rose to join him in music-making of the highest order.

Mahan Esfahani  Photo Courtesy of Marco Borggreve
Mahan Esfahani. Photo Courtesy of Marco Borggreve

Under the theme ‘In the Name of Bach’, the programme pivoted enticingly around sonatas by CPE Bach (whose birth tercentenary falls this year), and his lesser-known Czech and German colleagues from Frederick the Great’s court, Franz Benda and Johann Gottlieb Graun (also, respectively, sometime violin student and teacher). The concert opened with a largely fluid and dynamic performance of Emanuel Bach’s Sonata for Violin Wq 76. Dating from the early 1760s, the work is far from being just a pretty galant, so to speak, but is thoroughly soaked in Empfindsamer Stil.

Very broadly speaking, the galant had come about in response to the complex, ‘strict and learned’ style of earlier baroque composers – especially JS Bach – and sought to combine elegant lightness with immediate appeal. Empfindsamer Stil, or ‘sensitive style’, took that immediacy in all sorts of unpredictable directions for the sake of the authentic expression of emotion; hence, the music twists and turns harmonically, with sudden explosive gestures and odd modulations and phrasing, often – like here at Brecon’s Christ College, in the hands of this splendid duo at their height – to fantastic and dizzying effect.

The crazy-paving alternate delicacy, attack and florid lyricism of the keyboard part of the opening duet was taken to another level by Esfahani in the harpsichord sonata Wq 52 which followed. Of course, Emanuel Bach’s musical drama is never less than rooted in actual humanity, but the response of Esfahani when a woman fainted in the front row showed like nothing else his special human qualities. Not many soloists would have the presence of mind to jump to someone’s aid in the way he did mid-phrase, before calmly resuming where he’d left off when it was eventually established that she would be fine. His sheer care and generosity, if anything, drew in an already intimate audience even further.

Čičić then picked up Esfahani’s informative baton to introduce us to Benda who, having joined the court at Potsdam in 1732, remained there for a long fifty-two years until his death in 1786, specialising in the performance of violin concertos. The composer’s sonata in A major proved full of rapid scale and arpeggio interplay (with the violin often accompanying the harpsichord), delightful tunes and strong-weak articulation, with Čičić growing in both tone and stature as the piece progressed.

But it was Čičić’s second half turn to the viola d’amore which really seemed to shake the violinist loose, with a rollicking performance of Benda’s D major sonata for this rare and beautiful instrument and continuo. Benda’s distinctive, Slavic harmonic swerves, coupled with the rich resonance of the sympathetic strings and an elastic, extrovert harpsichord were a magical combination. The performers had found their special rapport. And the experience carried over into JG Graun’s Sonata for violin and basso continuo in G minor – dripping with ornament, strange intervallic leaps and unexpected syncopations.

The final work, Emanuel Bach’s Sonata for violin Wq 73, took us back to an earlier period of the composer’s: 1745 to be exact; the same time around which he had composed the harpsichord sonata of the first half. Čičić opined that this music was somewhat ‘less weird’ than the composer’s later works – but Esfahani disagreed, saying that the keyboard part, at least, was full of bizarre and delicious things. I suspect they are both right in the sense that there is a singing quality to this music which seems to speak more of classical-era equilibrium than of Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’) – both stylistic turns, as it were waiting in the wings when the piece was composed. But still, there are teasing flourishes and fast switchings aplenty in this substantial and intriguing work. And it was played with enormous flair and vitality, with some fantastic interplay between the performers – who only seemed to excel themselves further in an exquisite encore of the slow movement from Emanuel Bach’s B minor sonata, heard in the first half; the first time, it turned out, the duo had played the work in public. Surely, if CPE Bach were alive to-day, he would be thrilled – however deserving – to have such stunning champions of his music.


* Esfahani is also active in performing and commissioning new music for the harpsichord; a very exciting endeavour.