Review of Harpsichord Recital in Slingsby Church

Church Clock falls silent at visit of harpsichord virtuoso to Slingsby

On Monday 16th July, five days before an appearance at the Proms in the Albert Hall, the brilliant young Iranian harpsichord virtuoso Mahan Esfahani performed in All Saints Slingsby.

The Ryedale Festival has been running for some 20 years in its current form, bringing high class music to every corner of Ryedale. Yet this might have been the first time that Slingsby had been chosen as a venue. Certainly we would have to go back to the days of the old Helmsley Festival, forerunner of the Ryedale Festival, to find another concert on our home patch.

To programme a harpsichord recital in All Saints Church Slingsby might seem a rather esoteric choice by Ryedale Festival Artistic Director Christopher Glynn, had he been aiming to attract a new audience to the delights of classical music. But, if you have to start somewhere, why not Bach on the harpsichord? This is music in its purest form.

In the event, it was good to see a few Slingsby residents in the audience among the faithful Festival regulars.

Mahan Esfahani is a hugely talented BBC New Generation Artist. He studied in Boston and Milan before settling in the UK. He was playing dance-based music from three centuries (by Orlando Gibbons, a gifted amateur by the name of Azzolino della Ciaja, and the one and only J.S. Bach). Mahan’s nimble fingers sped up and down the keyboard, making light of passage work, but paused appropriately to bring out the juicy dissonances and subtle countermelodies. This was not genteel playing for the parlour. He delighted in the possibilities of his instrument (on loan for this event from the York Early Music Centre), at times pounding out repetitions, or “giving it some wellie” as I believe musicologists say.

But Slingsby residents will want to know why the church clock was silenced. During his practice an hour before the start of the recital, the musician’s keen ear picked up the soft clunking of the clock mechanism. In a moment he was in the church tower examining the mechanism. Having gently dissuaded him from touching anything, I was fortunate to find the church warden Ann Wilson, who in turn located Stephen Mackinder, who turned off the clock. Then Mahan Esfahani drew our attention to an even more subtle and distant sound, identifying it unquestionably as a lawn mower (sure enough the verges were being mown over a hundred yards away up Slingsby High Street!). At this point, as Steward, I was perhaps getting a little edgy as I suggested that he should worry more about tractors, and that anyway all this was part of the unique rural ambience of the Ryedale Festival. It should be said that the musician’s demands were all made with courtesy and good humour. Soon the audience was settling down to hear first-class music-making.

Concerts of the highest quality have since then been staged up and down Ryedale, in stately homes, churches, abbeys and purpose-built venues. As the Festival comes to an end with the Final Gala Concert to be given by the Northern Sinfonia this evening (Sunday 29 July) at Hovingham Hall, there will be a pause to reflect on a busy and highly entertaining sixteen days of music and drama, before the thoughts of Christopher Glynn and all Festival members turn to next year’s Festival.

Jon Boots, 29 July 2012