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CD Review

20th-Century Harp Sonatas

  • Pierick Houdy: Sonate pour Harpe
  • Alfredo Casella: Sonata per Arpa, Op. 68
  • Nicolas Flagello: Sonata for Harp
  • Paul Hindemith: Sonate für Harfe
  • Germaine Tailleferre: Sonate pour Harpe
Sarah Schuster Ericsson, harp
Dorian DSL-92106 68:56
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Brancusi harp.

Up front, I'll tell you I know very little about harps or harp-playing. The harp is, of course, one of the oldest instruments. The god Hermes supposedly created the first one, but it's probably older than Greece. Modal music suits it best, and despite the addition of mechanics (through pedals) to alter a note chromatically, it remains essentially a modal instrument, although it can modulate, change modes, and supply an accidental. The seven pedals have three positions (flat, natural, sharp), and each one affects all octaves of its particular note. I suspect harpists can't play a fast chromatic scale without barking their shins or spraining an ankle. Even then, I doubt the scale would be all that fast. This limitation does restrict the themes and chords a composer can use. Furthermore, the characteristic interval of much of Modern music is the half-step.

The French have produced some beautiful classic pieces, but then modalism runs through quite a bit of Modern French music. Successful harp music not particularly modal interests me, because I always want to know how the composers pulled it off. The serialists seem to have more to negotiate with the instrument, although at least two masterpieces use this method: the sonata by Ernst Krenek and the concerto by Alberto Ginastera.

The program consists of works modal (Houdy), chromatic (Flagello, Hindemith), and somewhere between (Casella, Tailleferre). Pierick Houdy, a Breton who studied with Maurice Duruflé and Darius Milhaud among others, had a modest career in France. In 1970, he moved to Canada to teach at the Laval University of Quebec and in 1992 returned to France, where he continues to compose. A light work, the harp sonata begins with a haunting allegro that makes a lot of open fourths both melodically and harmonically, giving the movement an "open" sound, while the "Lent" is a slow, ritualized procession, a genre especially beloved by the Impressionists. A perpetuum mobile rounds off the work.

Casella, along with certain other composers of the post-Puccini generation, did his bit to establish a strong Italian instrumental and symphonic (as opposed to operatic) tradition. Unusually for an Italian composer at this time, he received his main training in Paris and became caught up in the musical currents there. However, he also made an epiphanic discovery of Mahler's Second Symphony, which, in addition to other influences he took on, some temporary, stayed with him throughout his career. The harp sonata, a classic among harpists, has something of Impressionism in its idiom, but its structure comes out of the Brahms playbook. Again, fourths and fifths dominate the declamatory opening movement, a sonata allegro. The slow second movement, labeled "Sarabande (Grave, solenne)," begins in the same genre as the corresponding movement in the Houdy but proceeds more contrapuntally and becomes livelier after its initial strain. The finale, "Tempo di marcia," is not a march but a vivacious, kaleidoscopic rondo. I would say the Houdy typifies most harp pieces, essentially divertissements. The Casella trades in altogether bigger, more complex musical pieces, yet without loss of vivacity. It thoroughly deserves harpists' esteem.

The American Nicolas Flagello, a neo-Romantic (according to some, even a Late Romantic), labored for many years in Samuel Barber's shadow. As yet, he has no real "hit," but his music, years after his death, has begun to attract attention with the release of a bunch of CDs from various labels. These have revealed a composer of enormous technical capability and a big nature – dramatic, passionate, and somewhat dark. He hasn't Barber's incredible melodic gift, but he does catch listeners up in his narratives. He goes for, and usually gets, big emotions as well as emotional extremes. He taught at the Manhattan School of Music and wrote a good many scores for his faculty colleagues. The sonata may have been one. It seems to pose difficulties for players, and it sometimes gets chosen as a test piece in harp competitions.

Maestoso fanfares announce big things, but a beautifully lyrical idea steers the movement into emotionally turbulent waters. At the recapitulation, we return to the epic opening. This time, however, the darkness affects the fanfares all on its own, and the movement ends in emotional limbo. The gorgeous slow movement evokes a singer, lonely in the night, accompanying himself on a guitar. There aren't all that many notes, but those there carry full weight. The finale sweeps away melancholy with a couple of firm strokes. This may cause harpists the most fits. They need to move "allegro più possibile" (as fast as possible) in the accompaniment, but they must also sustain a lead singing line. Flagello gives us a mostly-cheerful movement of enormous originality. This is no mere perpetuum mobile nor does it cling to conventions of "happy" music. Indeed, it flirts with the sad without succumbing to it. A score with real emotional depth.

The Hindemith sonata to me is one of the few successful hard-core Modern works for the harp. It has become another repertory touchstone, one of the few non-French or -Spanish works to do so. Hindemith writes a magical opening, achieved through a deep understanding of harp sonority and capabilities. This music penetrates to the soul of the instrument. The second-movement scherzo reminds me of Puck and his crew fleet in the night. Hindemith surprises me in that he doesn't go through his normal contrapuntal wizardry. Indeed, there's less true counterpoint here than in the Flagello. The sonata ends unusually with a slow movement, based on a poem by the German Romantic Ludwig Hölty, concerning the death prayer of a harper. It has a very vocal line. I wonder if one could sing the poem to Hindemith's tune.

People know Germaine Tailleferre mainly through her association with Les Six – with the other members Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, and Louis Durey. Much of her career was interrupted by two bad marriages and, later, by severe arthritis. In addition, she seemed to accept the patronization of her as a Woman Composer, comfortable only in small forms and "domestic" emotions, despite scores to the contrary, like the Cantate du Narcisse to poetry by Paul Valéry. Her personal trials led her to write music that sought release. In many ways, she reminds me of Jean Françaix – modest packages that conceal great things. In addition to her sonata, she also wrote a harp concertino. Her harp sonata superficially resembles Houdy's – three movements, fast-slow-fast. However, in a matter of moments, you realize a composer with a marvelously precise ear for harmony and texture, in the class of Ravel and Stravinsky, and a shaper of effortless yet sophisticated counterpoint. The slow movement, "Lento," has the poise and a bit of the exoticism of a Satie gymnopédie. It ends in a cloud. The perpetuum mobile finale, marked "Allegro gaiement," has a bit of American syncopated exuberance to it (Tailleferre spent the Second World War in New York) and sounds genuinely gay. It smiles because it wants to.

Sarah Schuster Ericsson studied with the legendary Alice Chalifoux, among others. As I say, I can't validly pronounce on harp playing. However, I have heard three of these works (Casella, Hindemith, Tailleferre) on LP played by the Spanish super-virtuoso Nicanor Zabaleta, and I prefer his interpretations (mostly no longer available). Ericsson plays cleanly, but I sometimes get the impression she's afraid to make a mistake. As a result, some of the works sound tentative rather than vivacious. She does best in the Casella and Flagello with detailed, sensitive, and penetrating readings. In the Houdy, she sometimes hesitates with individual notes. The Hindemith finale is so slow it threatens to fall apart, and I want her to take the Tailleferre finale faster as well. Nevertheless, nothing actually does fall apart, and you've got a disc with five very beautiful scores, some played very well indeed.

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz