Czech harpsichord legend Zuzana Růžičková would have turned 91 on 14 January, making it an ideal night for a tribute concert featuring one of her star pupils, Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. As he noted in brief remarks sandwiched between rousing renditions of Bach, “When she died, I lost a great teacher. But this country lost part of its history.”

To the outside world, Růžičková, who died on 27 September, was one of the 20th centuryʼs foremost interpreters of Bach, a superb stylist who brought uncommon grace and insight to his music, and the first harpsichordist to record all his keyboard works. She was also one of the leading exponents of her instrument, dragging it from the dustbin of early music into the modern era and new repertoire. In her homeland she was a political hero, surviving the Terezin concentration camp and Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen death camps, then defying the communists during their 40-year occupation of Czechoslovakia while proudly touring the world as a Czech artist, a privilege afforded to very few during that era.

Mahan Esfahani © Anežka Horová
Mahan Esfahani
© Anežka Horová

The tribute concert, held at the Maisel Synagogue in Pragueʼs Jewish Quarter, opened with Bachʼs Sonata after Johann Adam Reincken in A minor. After a deep breath and slow, deliberate start, Esfahani picked up momentum and showed he had learned his lessons very well by imbuing the music with nuance, dynamics and eloquent expression. The clockwork rhythms that characterize many performances of Bach were notably absent, replaced by a lively and engaging melodic flow.

Kaija Saariahoʼs Jardin Secret II offered a nod to Růžičkováʼs commitment to new music and making the harpsichord a vibrant part of it. Esfahani made it sound as abstract as the electronic gasps, whistles and percussive knocks echoing through the synagogue, sometimes matching the jarring effects of the noise, other times offering more sedate fills and accents.

No tribute to Růžičková would be complete without a piece by her husband of 54 years, Czech composer Viktor Kalabis. For his Dialogues for Cello and Harpsichord, Esfahani was joined by Tomáš Jamník, one of the countryʼs finest young cellists. Despite the title, the cello has the lead voice in this piece, which was gripping from the opening notes. Jamník showed great technique and feeling, with Esfhani contributing a lively continuo that turned into a side-by-side sprint with the cello lines in the finale.

Esfahani took his coat off for a concluding solo run through Bachʼs English Suite no. 3, and needed the elbow room. It was a virtuoso performance, with blazing fingerwork and powerful emotion producing music that was organic, colorful and celebratory. Růžičkováʼs influence and legacy were clear in both the performance and the enthusiastic response it elicited from the audience.

Mahan Esfahani and Tomáš Jamník © Anežka Horová
Mahan Esfahani and Tomáš Jamník
© Anežka Horová

In her own performances, Růžičková could sound like an angel at the keyboard, but as a teacher she could be a demon. In Zuzana: Music is Life, a documentary completed not long before her death, there is a scene of her sitting with an exasperated Esfahani at the keyboard, chiding him about the correct way to play Bach. “And that was with the cameras on,” he said in a conversation after the concert. “When the cameras were off, it was actually ten times worse!”

Still, Esfahani has no regrets about moving to Prague two years ago to study intensively with Růžičková, nor any doubts about the impact she had on his life and career. “If I hadnʼt met and studied with Zuzana Růžičková, I wouldnʼt have learned how to ʻlive Bachʼ – which is to say that I wouldnʼt have applied the ideals I sensed in the music to my own life. She was the sort of artist who really gave music all of her spirit and humanity. Itʼs exhausting, but itʼs the way to live.”

Perhaps the clearest sign that a musical torch had been passed was the harpsichord Esfahani played at the concert, a brand-new instrument he commissioned from Prague harpsichord maker Jukka Ollikka. Long (nearly three meters) and sleek, it combines modern and traditional elements based on the designs and theories of Michael Mietke, an 18th-century instrument maker who worked at the court of the Hohenzollerns in Berlin. Esfahaniʼs modern version has four registers (including one an octave below the normal concert pitch), brass strings set at three different pitches and a carbon fibre soundboard.

As a bridge between the world of Zuzana Růžičková and whatever lies ahead for this 600-year old instrument, itʼs a powerful symbol. “Weʼll have to wait and see, but Iʼm quite hopeful,” Esfahani said. “I think this special instrument has a bright future.”