The pairing of opera diva and virtuoso harpsichordist isn’t an obvious one, which made yesterday’s Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert an intriguing one, particularly with two artists at the very top of the rankings for their respective instruments. Dame Sarah Connolly is one of the most versatile mezzos singing today, able to excel at anything from early music to Wagner to Schoenberg. Mahan Esfahani is another musician who matches technical accomplishment with a constant desire to extend his repertoire in many directions.

Dame Sarah Connolly and Mahan Esfahani
© Wigmore Hall

The vocal part of the programme spanned five centuries of English music but less than a century’s worth of poetry, the words all written by Shakespeare or within a century of him. Esfahani’s solo harpsichord pieces were as diverse in time but more varied in provenance: the Netherlands, Germany and Esfahani’s adopted home of Czech. 

Apart from the last number, Esfahani played harpsichord for his solo pieces but used the hall’s Steinway grand to accompany Connolly. Together with the separate repertoires, this gave the decided effect of two separate concerts added together rather than a single unit. If there was a rationale for this construction of the programme, we didn’t get to find out: whether by intention, omission or equipment failure, the Radio 3 presenter’s introductions weren’t amplified, so in the gaps between pieces, I could hear that an introduction was being spoken without being able to make out any of the words.

What both performers share is an exceptional ability to shape a musical phrase and this was on display for the whole hour of the concert. When Connolly sings Purcell, she has such complete control over breath, dynamics and timbre that a single syllable can germinate, bloom and fade in a range of colours that other singers simply cannot achieve. I listened in awe to one particular phrase in We sing to him whose wisdom form’d the ear which rose to the top of the register and fell, its contour formed with the care of a sculptor. At the harpsichord, Esfahani doesn’t have the option of changing the volume of individual notes, but he has other means of shaping a phrase: he can create a lush texture by the evenness of a wash of notes and can then make a single note in a different register rise out of the blend, shining brightly. In his opening piece, Louis Andriessen’s 1982 Overture to Orpheus, an interesting effect was that of a single note played rapidly alternating between the two keyboards: it is a particularly pleasing sound that you can’t replicate on a piano, although classical guitar composers use an equivalent by having the same note played on different strings. Andriessen’s music has an insistent rhythm resonant of the minimalist composers – hearing this adapted for harpsichord was an interesting opening of a different sound world.

The Dowland and Purcell songs were all sung with piano accompaniments created or reworked by modern composers. Paul Edlin’s arrangement of Dowland’s Come, heavy sleep, the first song on the programme, was particularly notable, the lyrical vocal lines accompanied by restless harmonies with more than a touch of Debussy. Of Esfahani’s solo pieces, the most thrilling was the last: the second of Martinů’s 1935 Two pieces for harpsichord, with skips and leaps in the high register, textures so thick that the harpsichord almost sounded like an organ, and a superbly powerful ending.

To close, Michael Tippett’s Songs for Ariel, the famous words from The Tempest sung with glee. I’ll remember Connolly’s barking watchdog and crowing cockerel for a long time; the “Ding-dong bell” of Full fathom five tolled mournfully; the bee sucking in its cowslip provided a joyful end to the hour.