Site review by Geohominid June 16, 2012
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|The French have had a love-affair with the harp since Medieval times, yet very few harp concertos, even in France, appear on modern concert platforms. Outside France, the usual suspects are the Mozart concerto for flute and harp (written in the manner of a keyboard piece) or (rarely) Boieldieu's Harp Concerto in C, from 1800-01. Handel's Harp Concerto in B flat major seems to do better than all of them, despite only being a version of one of his organ concertos. For Ars Produktion, Researcher Maria Cleary found more than 30 mostly forgotten harp concertos written in the Age of the Enlightenment and the following early Romantic period. Three of them are presented here, in the company's occasional series "Forgotten Treasures".
Masumi Nagasawa is one of the few harpists to play the modern Grand Harp, the single-action harp (C18th-C19th), the Irish Harp and the kugo (Japanese Harp). Frequently invited as a judge in Harp Competitions around the world, she has recorded a number of discs with the single-action harp and other period instrumentalists. In her notes for the disc, she tells us that there is still a great deal of repertoire in libraries, waiting to be discovered; adding that there are many original single-action pedal harps which can be restored by skilled instrument makers so that they can be used in performance today. She goes on to tell us enthusiastically that "the sound from these authentic instruments brings back the charm, virtuosity, grace and true essence of the music once again".
The orchestra for this venture is the Kölner Akademie period instrument ensemble, directed by Michael Alexander Willens. Renowned and much-recorded, the individual characters of the group's instrumentarium add a further colouristic quality to the newly prepared concertos.
Martin-Pierre d'Alvimare (1772-1839) certainly had an interesting life. Born into the French aristocracy, a harpist and composer of child prodigy status, he managed to escape the Revolution's guillotine by dropping the apostrophe from his name and divesting himself of everything which might draw notice to his high-class roots. His career really made progress during the Napoleonic period; he joined the Emperor's chamber orchestra and became harp tutor to Empress Josephine. Despite the earlier failure of his only opera, his large output of songs and instrumental pieces (mainly for harp) were considered masterly and were in demand by other musicians.
The second Concerto for Harp and Orchestra in C minor Op. 30 by d'Alvimare (or Dalvimare) is remarkable for its serious, dramatic style, which seems to be in Beethoven's world rather than the usual Classical galanterie. The orchestra is also a large one for its time, with pairs of flutes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, strings and timpani. The concerto's lengthy, powerful orchestral exposition opens with two peremptory loud chords which make one wonder, since the concerto is dated as "after 1803, if d'Alvimare had heard the same gesture at a performance of Beethoven's Eroica symphony in Paris (the Eroica was completed in 1804).
Muscular rhetoric from the orchestra is contrasted then with the calming, angelic sound of the harp, which here plays a completely solo role, while the other, earlier style, harp concertos on the disc have the harp playing all the time as a continuo. A second-movement Romance confirms d'Alvimare's burgeoning Romanticism with a lighter orchestral texture and a lovely, long-breathed cantabile for flute and bassoon, much decorated by the harp. The final Rondo is blithely rustic, with a jaunty, skipping dotted note tune; most unusual but effective and very amusing. Vengeance is wreaked on the poor natural horns who are given a long passage of trills to get through - magnificently negotiated by the Kölner horns.
Francesco Petrini (1740-1823) was born in Berlin to an Italian father who was a chamber musician at the court of Frederick the Great. Trained as a harpist, he naturally gravitated to Paris in 1770 and published a set of sonatas for his instrument. He stayed on during the chaos of the Revolution, to the end of his life. When the social and artistic life of the city resumed, and the famous public orchestral Concerts Spirituel provided opportunities to have his four harp concertos performed. Petrini was less progressive than d'Alvimare, espousing the joyous spirit of Le style galante which was still in vogue.
Petrini's first Concerto for Harp and Orchestra Op. 25 is written for a typical Classical orchestra of 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings. Compared with d'Alvimare's "big" orchestral sound ,which rather kept the single-action harp sounding rather fragile, this smaller ensemble allows the lightly-strung period harp to proportionally blossom in tone, presenting typical harp techniques of the C18th, including broken chords, rapid scales and octave accompaniments. Beginning unconventionally with an Andante grazioso, a long, warm and affectionate first subject is underpinned by the harp's continuo role, to which the solo role responds with suavity and florid decoration. A second movement Romance moves gravely on the strings, responded to by the harp, now bowed down by tears. All this emotion is banished by the sparkling, lilting Rondo, beset with catchy tunes.
Daniel Steibelt (1765-1823) was also born in Berlin, but from a German father. In his youth he studied music but this stopped when his father insisted he join the Prussian Army. Having deserted, the artistic son led a nomadic career as a pianist, finally settling in Paris in 1790. There he completed an opera, Romeo and Juliette, much admired by no less than Hector Berlioz. Sharing time between Paris and London, his piano playing attracted the famous impresario Salomon who give him some London concerts. Steibelt moved on yet again to Vienna, where he unwisely challenged Beethoven to a trial of their skills. Beethoven won by improvising a comprehensive piece on a theme of Steibelt's - with Steibelt's manuscript upside-down on Beethoven's music stand! Leaving Vienna, disgraced, Steibelt returned to Paris, where he organised the first performance of Haydn's "The Creation". It was probably at this time that he wrote his 'Grand concert pour harpe' and likely had it performed by d'Alvimare and Napoleon's Chamber Orchestra. In 1808 Tsar Alexander I invited him to St Petersburg, where he succeeded Boieldieu as Director of the Royal Opera.
Steibelt may have been a pianist, but he obviously made some effort to write well for the harp. His music is imaginative with strong individuality. The first movement of his Grand Concerto is very long, at 16'43", employing a double exposition as devised by Mozart in his later piano concertos. Thematically, it borrows some good tunes from his earlier ballet 'Le Retour de Zephyre' ,played by a solo group of horn, clarinet and harp. Finally the solo harp takes over, weaving richly melodic lines, and always pleasing. The solemn Adagio begins with soft strings, not a thousand miles away from the Adagio of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto; Nagasawa's playing is subtly nuanced in this movement, which is simply gorgeous. The final jog-trotting, joyful Rondo also has a unique and ear-catching texture from the orchestra, with the strings trying to suggest the whir of a coach's departing wheels (my personal analogy). A truly lovely and original movement, which somehow sounds very Viennese.
The Ars engineers produced their usual excellent balance and controlled acoustic response of a Wuppertal Church with a minimal microphone array, the perfect foil for the Köln ensemble, and a stunningly clear portrayal of the beautifully toned single-action harp, such that only a small contribution of pedal movement is caught. Nagasama has full measure of these pieces, wearing her virtuosity lightly, and her fluid articulation sounds faultless. She and Willems clearly have a close rapport, and many session photos in the booklet show there was a delightfully informal atmosphere while recording.
On all counts, this is an excellent disc, one to be relished in many playings. In practical terms, the concertos of these three composers are not now forgotten, but they are treasures. Job well done!
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