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Views And Reviews: The Romantic Harp

…Spending eternity sitting on a fluffy, pink cloud, dressed in only a pure white nightie, and playing on a harp is not my idea of “heaven”, either with or without a capital “H”! Don’t get me wrong: as far as I am concerned the harp is the most sumptuous-sounding instrument ever to grace a concert platform, and so often the lynch-pin of all the glow and glitter of our most colourful music. Yet, the prospect of listening to nigh on two whole hours of wall-to-wall harping fills me with foreboding: what if some misguided Superior Being should slightly misinterpret my purpose – as some sort of wishful thinking?…

Despite this vigorous caveat Paul Serotsky finds much to like in a collection of romantic harp music.

CD 1
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
The Swan, from “Carnaval des Animaux”
Morceau de concert
Jaques OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880)
Barcarolle
Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
Träumerei
August DURAND (1830 – 1909)
Chaconne
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743 – 1805)
Menuet
Anon.
Sakura, Sakura [a Japanese folksong]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Waltz in A flat major
Johann STRAUSS (1825 – 1899)
Pizzicato Polka
Isaac ALBENIZ (1860 – 1909)
Granada
Malagueña No. 1
Malagueña No. 2
Edvard GRIEG (1843 – 1907)
Anitra’s Dance, from “Peer Gynt”
Frigyes HIDAS (1928 -)
Hungarian Folksongs
Enrique GRANADOS (1867 – 1916)
Danza Española No. 5
New York Harp Ensemble
Aristid von Würtzler (director and soloist)

CD 2
Marcel GRANDJANY (1891 – 1975)
Rhapsodie
Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892 – 1983)
Sonate
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845 – 1924)
Une Chatelaine en sa Tour
Après une Rêve
Albert ROUSSEL (1869 – 1937)
Impromptu
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863 – 1937)
Impromptu caprice
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
Clair de Lune
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903 – 1978)
Oriental Dance
Toccata
Jean-Michel DAMASE (1928 -)
Sicilienne variée
Carlos SALZÉDO (1885 – 1961)
Variations sur un Thème dans le Style Ancien
Ieuan Jones (harp)

Brilliant Classics 5425 (2 CD), licenced from Hungaroton (CD 1) and ASV (CD 2)
[117'54]

Spending eternity sitting on a fluffy, pink cloud, dressed in only a pure white nightie, and playing on a harp is not my idea of “heaven”, either with or without a capital “H”! Don’t get me wrong: as far as I am concerned the harp is the most sumptuous-sounding instrument ever to grace a concert platform, and so often the lynch-pin of all the glow and glitter of our most colourful music. Yet, the prospect of listening to nigh on two whole hours of wall-to-wall harping fills me with foreboding: what if some misguided Superior Being should slightly misinterpret my purpose – as some sort of wishful thinking? Not that I’m superstitious, you understand, but perhaps the caveat to resist swallowing the whole recording in one gulp should, in this particular case, be taken rather more seriously than usual.

Anyway, what have we here? One hefty, old-fashioned double-CD case bearing a rose-tinted illustration that overlays a picture of a harp (so far, so good) on one of a well made-up, pretty, and wistful-looking wench doing her level best to project the “Romantic” bit of the production’s title. To an old cynic like me, her level best adds up to something between “soppy” and just plain “bored”. I’m starting to get this nagging feeling that this is one of those “themed” issues, packed with designer classics to grace the designer wallpaper at your average designer dinner-party.

Not to worry, after all this is a Brilliant Classics production. Mindful of the exemplary presentation of their superb Shostakovich Symphonies set, I excitedly ripped off (insofar as this confounded material will permit) the shrink-wrapping to see what erudition the booklet offered. Ah! Problem. No booklet. Not even a thin, inadequate one! I wonder, what is the point of a hefty, old-fashioned double-CD case if not to make room for a hefty, old-fashioned informative booklet? I sincerely hope that this is accidental, and that there should be a booklet, otherwise our enlightenment regarding the contents depends entirely on the track listings on the back U-card.

With growing trepidation, I turned over the box and . . . yes (phew!) there is a listing. Is it time to dance in the street? No, not quite. Sure enough, each piece’s composer, title, and running time are given, but there is vital information conspicuous by its absence. It is glaringly obvious that many of the pieces must be arrangements – Brahms, for example, was hardly reknowned for his equali for harps – but arrangers are not credited. Yet, daft as it might seem, we know even less about the more unfamiliar pieces, as we can’t even be sure whether they are “originals” or “arrangements”. For example, just because Salzedo and Grandjany were themselves harpists does not guarantee that their works presented here were written for the harp, does it? Anyway, look after that U-card, it’s the only reference to the contents – the CDs themselves, which for reasons that elude me are not rose-tinted but a fairly yucky yellow (a mustardy colour more readily associated with retching than romance), carry what must be counted as the absolute minimum of information.

It doesn’t sound very promising thus far, does it? Never mind, hope springs eternal in the breast of the eternal optimist, so let’s consider those all-important contents. At this point, things start to buck up – the sound quality is excellent. On CD1, the ensemble of what seems like four harps (aye, you’re right, we aren’t even told how many!) is spread across the foreground, quite closely “miked” in the intimate manner of a string quartet, but with of plenty of resonant space behind. This gives an overall cosy bloom to the sound that nevertheless avoids blunting the razor-sharp edges of the upper end of the harp’s range. A similar tale can be told of CD2, except that here we have just the one harp, and a smidgin of residual background hiss that betrays the recording’s analogue origins (no, there are no recording dates, either!).

Some of the obvious arrangements are more successful than others. Of course, this conclusion depends rather heavily on the criteria by which you measure “success”. In my book, the only thing that matters is not how close to the original the arrangement comes, but how convincing the music sounds as a work for harp(s). To filch a fashionable bit of business-speak, one of the “key success factors” relates to the harp’s sustaining power which, in its middle and upper registers, hardly rivals a spinet let alone a concert grand. Needless to say, when the harp is compared with wind instruments and (especially) bowed strings there is, in this respect, no contest! A literal transcription for harp of an original work that is (a) slow, and (b) sparsely populated note-wise will, to say the least, sound a mite disjointed.

So it is with, the first three tracks of CD1. The ponderous plodding of Saint-Saëns’s The Swan, Offenbach’s Barcarolle, and Schumann’s Träumerei has much less to do with the performances than it does with the arrangements, which I feel just do not work. The same is true of the Brahms Waltz in A flat, which would have been “B flat” were it not for some sensitive tempo tweakings by the NY Harp Ensemble. Ieuan Jones on CD2 has the same problem with the Khachaturian Oriental Dance, which I presume is an arrangement – I’m not familiar with this tune, and equally unaware of any inclination towards solo harp works on the part of Khachaturian. Not that it matters, either way it’s as dull as ditchwater, and there’s nothing that Jones can do about that.

That, you will be relieved to hear, is just about all the bad news! After those first three dull items on CD1, Auguste Durand’s Chaconne comes as a real breath of fresh air, a thoroughly charming little piece that has everything the former pieces lacked. It’s much livelier and more mobile, the rollicking little tune bristling with busy baroque scurryings, leaving no room for boredom to fill. It must be catching, because the subsequent arrangement of Boccherini’s famous String Quintet Minuet movement is similarly full of life, the amiable tune rolling deliciously off the harps’ strings as if to the manner born.

The Japanese folksong makes a terrific novelty item, with added percussion and some brilliant koto imitations. Hardly surprisingly, Strauss’s Pizzicato Polka is a “natural” that works a real treat, coming across as just that bit more golden than orchestral strings. On the other hand, Anitra’s Dance by Grieg is a surprise, and a really pleasant one at that, full of bounce and with lashings of well-judged variations of attack. And so it goes on: if Hidas’s Hungarian Folksongs are nothing like Bartók, they combine jollity and a degree of idiomatic sonority, whilst the Spanish arrangements perhaps owe something to the affinity between harp and guitar (yes, I know these were originally piano works, but I’m referring to the guitar sounds implied by the pianistic style!). The Granados item is particularly successful, featuring a gorgeous, whirring rhythm reminiscent of a passage in Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre. For some peculiar reason, the NY Harp Ensemble’s recital ends with the two Albeniz Malagueñas, which are both for solo harp! Ah, well, I suppose it links nicely to CD2, doesn’t it?

Charmingly as the NY folk played, they have to yield to the stunning virtuosity of Ieuan Jones. With a name like that, I’ll just bet that he’s Welsh, and boy can this boyo play! At least part of this impression must be down to his choice of music. Apart from the aforementioned Oriental Dance, everything is generally much more up the harp’s street. For example, several of the pieces make use of what I noted down as a Rachmaninov-style “left hand”, one that is always busy joining up the dots, most notably in the opening Grandjany piece and in Fauré’s Une Chatelaine, which have a liquidity that is missing in those prosaic arrangements on CD1. Jones, however, is always going that bit further, in his mixing of attack, variations of texture, and sensitivity to the music’s dynamic shading.

I could waffle on for ages (OK, I have waffled on for ages!) about the felicities in Jones’ playing, but I’ll restrain myself to some highlights. Try Tailleferre’s tangy Sonate (the U-card helpfully lists the three movements as “First Movement”, “Second Movement”, and “Third Movement”) for a bit of French “sass”, or Fauré’s Après une Rève for a distinct feeling of singer and guitar, or the Damase item to discover just how many notes can be spun around a simple tune, or Debussy’s Claire de Lune as an example of how to “work” a slow piece, or the comparatively formidable Roussel Impromptu for something to spoil the designer wallpaper. Most of all, don’t miss the closing Salzedo Variations – after a somewhat Handelian prelude, this builds up into a showpiece par excellence, the harpist’s answer to Paganini’s diabolical violin!

To sum up: package – nul points; documentation – as near as dammit to nul points; recordings – more than acceptable; content – variable, but a lot more worth hearing than not; performances – never less than good, frequently enchanting, and occasionally “totally gob-smacking”! If I admit that quite a lot of this would serve as “designer classics” (etc.). I’d also have to say that it would also be a waste of quite a lot of thoroughly rewarding listening. Try it, it’ll be worth the Brilliant Classics price just for that incredible piece of Salzedo.

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