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Mahan Esfahani and Bach's First Masterpieces

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani
Kaja Smith
Mahan Esfahani

On The Bach Hour, the Prague-based harpsichordist reveals the astonishing creative force embedded in Bach's Toccatas, and Ton Koopman directs the Cantata 187.

On the program:

Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552-2, "St. Anne" - Fretwork

Cantata BWV 187 Es wartet alles auf dich (translation) - Sandrine Piau, soprano; Bogna Bartosz, alto; Klaus Mertens, bass; Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra, Ton Koopman, conductor

Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910 - Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord

Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043 - Isabelle Faust and Bernhard Forck, violins; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin


When you assemble J.S. Bach’s music into a kind of creative trajectory, with particular collections of music lined up with the major events and turning points of his life, a fascinating picture emerges. There is undeniable musical genius, to be sure. But that’s evident in almost any singular piece you might choose from his 65-year life.

What emerges through the major collections is a portrait of a person driven by an impulse to be compared with - and even exceed - the achievements of his predecessors. It’s a competitive nature that we don’t often think of when it comes to music. And it was launched through the music you’re hearing.


It’s a Toccata, written when Bach was a young adult, just beginning to very consciously carve his name in history books. And you’ll hear it, played by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. Christoph Wolff, of Harvard University, has been the world’s leading Bach scholar for decades. And two decades after his cornerstone biography of the composer, published in 2000, Wolff published “Bach’s Musical Universe: The Composer and his Work.” It’s a fascinating study in what we can learn about Bach as a person - and the very nature of creativity - through the masterpieces that have survived the centuries. And you’ll hear one of the key musical building blocks of that study later in the hour.

Also on the program is Bach’s Cantata No. 187, Es wartet alles auf dich, or “Everything waits for You.” And if you’d like to see a translation of the text for that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Before all of that, though, here is a Fugue E-flat, which later came to be known as the “St. Anne.” This is the viol consort Fretwork, here on The Bach Hour.


A Fugue in E-flat by Bach that, because of a sort of similarity of line with an English hymn tune, became known as the “St. Anne” Fugue, performed here by Fretwork.

I’m Brian McCreath, with The Bach Hour, from 99-5 WCRB.

Bach’s Cantata No. 187, Es wartet alles auf dich, or “Everything waits for You,” is a piece about trust in the Divine, for teaching, intervention, and, ultimately, comfort.

It opens with a chorus, the text drawn from Psalm 104: “Everything waits for You, that You give them food at the proper time.”


The bass soloist broadens that praise, now for abundance on Earth, singing “Behold the mountains that stand by the thousands. What do the seas not produce? The streams and lakes are teeming. The great flock of birds glides through the air to the field.”


But through the course of the piece, the frame of reference narrows, from that global view of all creation down to the emotions and insecurities of a single believer. And there is a moment towards the end of the piece that Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music points to as the true essence of Bach’s message, when the soprano soloist sings, “If I can only hold onto Him with childlike trust, then I shall never see myself helpless.”


Remember, you’ll find a translation of this piece from Emmanuel Music when you start at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 187, featuring soprano Sandrine Piau, alto Bogna Bartosz, and bass Klaus Mertens. Ton Koopman leads the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, here on The Bach Hour.


Bach’s Cantata 187, Es wartet alles auf dich, or “Everything waits for You,” in a performance by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, led by Ton Koopman. The soloists included soprano Sandrine Piau, alto Bogna Bartosz, and bass Klaus Mertens.

In his 2020 book, Bach’s Musical Universe, Harvard University’s Christoph Wolff brings together his deep knowledge of the composer’s life and a rigorous analysis of the music Bach wrote to paint a portrait of one of history’s most complete geniuses. He also reveals, through that lens, some of the foundational aspects of creativity itself.

That portrait depicts a composer who clearly had a sense of his place in history. And he was also fueled, it seems, by an intensely competitive nature. In his early 20’s, Bach channeled that into a set of toccatas, a kind of piece that has the free-flowing feel of improvisation, even though it’s fully notated. Just as importantly, it was the type of piece Bach’s predecessors - like Dietrich Buxtehude and Nicholas Bruhns - used as the basis of their reputations. In other words, it was time for Bach to throw down his own marker on the compositional field.

Here is one of those pieces. In a 2019 release by Mahan Esfahani, this is the Toccata in F-sharp minor, here on The Bach Hour.


Bach’s Toccata in F-sharp minor, from a release by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. In his notes for this recording, Esfahani writes that, “I personally see the combination of the earthy free sections of the toccatas with the highly abstract ‘divine truth’ of the fugues as a meeting point of human imperfection and godly perfection.” Esfahani doesn’t literally assign religious symbolism to these pieces. But he does hear a duality that courses through Bach’s works.

Duality takes on a different meaning in another piece by Bach, this time describing two voices that interweave, call and respond and come together as one. This is the Concerto in D minor for two violins, with soloists Isabelle Faust and Bernhard Forck, and the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin.


Bach’s Concerto in D minor for two violins performed here by the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin, with soloists Isabelle Faust and Bernhard Forck.

Remember, you can hear this program again on demand when you visit Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear the 24/7 Bach Channel.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.