Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has forged a brilliant career from an "obsession" which began when he was just 8 or 9 years old.

That's when he first heard the harpsichord on a cassette tape and became determined to learn, even if it might not extend into a career.

"But then you have to be a bit crazy and obsessed to do anything."

Esfahani joins the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra for its The Sorcerer's Apprentice where the orchestra goes Gallic with a programme of Ravel, Bizet and Dukas. He's the soloist in Poulenc's 1928 Concert Champetre.


Concert Champetre is a favourite, Esfahani confesses, commissioned by the great Polish-French harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, one of many inspirational forces on his own career.

A delightfully chatty Esfahani is eager to divulge the composer's secrets, reminding me of Poulenc's saucy upliftings from Handel and Bach in the work's finale. "If I close my eyes, it sounds like a pair of French robbers in striped suits and black beanies," he says. "They've just robbed Versailles and are running off, with the Keystone Cops coming after them, tumbling out of the police wagon."

Esfahani, who gave the first ever harpsichord recital at the BBC Proms in 2011, won't have his instrument languishing in the 18th century. His 2015 CD, Time Present and Time Past, had music by the American minimalist Steve Reich alongside a Bach concerto, adorned with a Brahms cadenza.

"I've just got to have that mix of old and new," he says. "When you play a modern piece and then go back to a Baroque one, you can't help but see the score in a different way. An interpretation focused on the black notes on a printed page offers such a limited view."

Esfahani is sceptical of today's back-to-Baroque brigade. "Too often those teaching Baroque performance simply spout out a list of formulae. Their view is that Baroque composers were writing in a sort of code language and, once we learn how to use it, we know how to play Baroque music."

Recording Bach's Goldberg Variations last year was "a scary experience" and, reminding me of his other life as a "CD junkie" reviewing and presenting on BBC Radio 3, he points to the daunting existence of at least 750 earlier recordings of the work.

"But when that red light went on in that Cologne studio at 9am, I realised I had only three days to put it down and did so." Esfahani played the whole work twice each day, with the finished disc being "a conglomeration of all six".

This man knows and reveres Bach. On other occasions, he's described the potential of this composer's music to fuel a musician's entire career. "We don't achieve Bach," he explains. "We aspire to Bach and that is what makes his music such a worthwhile experience."

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra - The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 8pm