No 2 in A minor: Intermezzo [4'19]
No 4 in E major: Intermezzo [4'53]
Harpist Sivan Magen dazzles audiences wherever he goes with his formidable virtuosity and demonstrably perfect technique. Recorded at the famous Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, ‘Fantasien' marks Magen's Linn debut. The recording is a showcase of the modern concert harp demonstrating the powerful expression, dynamic range and sheer excitement this popular instrument can generate in the right hands.
Sivan Magen has recorded two previous albums, both of which received critical-acclaim; his Britten recital was listed in The New York Times' ‘Best Recordings of 2012'. Praised by the press as ‘a magician' (WQXR, New York), of ‘unheard of depth of colours, range of expression and rhetorical flow' (American Record Guide), Sivan Magen is the only Israeli to have ever won the prestigious International Harp Contest in Israel. Magen also won the Pro Musicis International Award in New York and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust's 2012 Award for exceptional young musicians.
At the outset, the listener will note that a number of works presented here were not originally composed for the harp. In his essay In Defense of Transcriptions, the great harpist Marcel Grandjany (1891–1975) writes: ‘The practice of transcribing music from one instrument to another has a long and honourable history … it is not a musical question, then, whether to play or not to play transcriptions, but rather a question of exercising good taste.’ Referring to the fact that the double action pedal harp (that allows the harpist to play in all keys) was not perfected until around 1810, Grandjany continues: ‘They [composers] did not have our harp, but we have their music!’
With the advent of this harp, much was made of the opportunities composers would have to exploit every possibility of a fully chromatic harp. However, little was made of the huge step in technical prowess that would be required of the harpist in order for the instrument to be considered alongside the piano. Yet, since the 1800s, a stratospheric rise in the harpist’s technical faculty means that today, the virtuoso harpist may perform the most complex of scores, even the most difficult of those originally conceived for the keyboard. Sivan Magen has proven this, with his breathtaking reimagining of a number of keyboard works, placed alongside cherished pieces from the core literature of the harp.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Sonata in G major for harp (1762), is a work that enjoys a central position in the repertoire of the modern harpist. This work is highly prized in large part due to the scarcity of meaningful original material for the harp from this period. That said, his Fantasia in E-flat major, H277, Wq58, (1782), could almost have been written for the harp; its rich cascades of tone and delicate textures are wholly suited to the voice of this instrument. The free fantasia was one of C.P.E. Bach’s great artistic preoccupations, and in his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, he devoted an entire chapter to the subject. This form advocates the use of improvisational creativity, spicy chromaticism and modulation to remote keys, as well as an expansive metric freedom with cadenzas unimpeded by bar lines. C.P.E. Bach made a conscious move to initiate a change from the purely schematic ideals of instrumental forms and to connect the act of music making to sensitivity and the inner landscape. Here, magnificently figured cadenzas frame sweetly expressive central sections, punctuated by sighing chromaticisms which invite both listener and performer alike to indulge their fantasy. He sailed through uncharted waters musically and it is touching to read a letter from the composer to the music printer Johann Immanuel Breitkopf, in which he states that: ‘After death, one can see what a fantast I was’.
Johannes Brahms was no stranger to the harp, giving it glorious, euphonious treatment in the Vier Frauenchöre, Op 17 for harp, two horns and female voice, and in Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op 45. Yet, as was the case with many great composers, he wrote nothing that exhibits the harp as a solo instrument. However, numerous commentators have mentioned that the expansive orchestral palette of Brahms’ piano works often recalls the fluid timbral qualities of the harp, and the impression of a harp does indeed haunt a number of his works. The artist’s selections from both 7 Fantasien, Op 116 and 3 Intermezzi, Op 117, come from a body of music that represents a marked departure from the classicist leanings of his earlier piano work. These works embrace an intimate nostalgia and mark the beginning of Brahms’ late period of creativity. Yet, these short pieces are far from sentimental and, as befits this recording, their treatment of mood and emotional state are always fantastical.
The Intermezzo, Op 116 No 2 in A minor is a work whose implied sense of longing is both immediate and vivid; the languorous cross rhythms of the opening give way to a silvery ‘presto’ where the triple metre is deftly blurred and there is a short-lived foray into more positive material in A major, before Brahms returns to the poignancy of the start. The Intermezzo, Op 116 No 4 in E major, with its silken treatment of voicing and register, is apt to create an impression of sweet reminiscence. The falling intervals of the upper voice seem to call out to the warm triplet activity of the bass, before escalating to passion and the fluttering of sixteenth notes, and ending in a reflective manner.
The Intermezzo, Op 117 No 1 in E-flat major is prefaced by a verse: ‘Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und Schön! Mich dauert’s sehr, dich weinen sehn’ (Sleep softly, my child, Sleep softly and well, it pains me to see you weep). The ensuing cradle song is suffused with folk-like inflection, around which the shades of night are drawn with the encroaching key of E-flat minor. The comparative turbulence of the middle section is created by the syncopation of the melody to the off-beats, and is suggestive of the fantastical dreamscapes of a sleeping infant. The animated note patterns of the Intermezzo, Op 117 No 2 in B-flat minor, as well as the distinctly un-classical failure of the tonic to appear in the bass until almost the end of the piece, give this piece a restive atmosphere. This fidgety character is briefly assuaged by a chordal motive that recalls the folk textures of the Intermezzo No 1, before the work ends with the synthesis of these two worlds, and the finality of the tonic of B-flat minor.
Of the works composed by Ekaterina Walter-Kühne (1870–1931), it is the Fantasia on Themes from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for solo harp that is most often performed today. Published in 1909, it bears a dedication to her devoted student, Ksenia Erdely-Engelhardt (1878–1970). Ksenia later wrote of her teacher: ‘Ekaterina Adolfovna was a person of rare kindness and great culture; as a teacher, in my opinion, she had no equals. [She] took me under her wing, surrounded me with motherly care.’ This motherly pedagogue, a student of Albert Zabel (1842–1910), also enjoyed an unrivalled career as an orchestra musician (as solo harpist of the Marijinsky Theater) and as a soloist. In 1892, at the age of twenty-two, Walter-Kühne became the first female musician in Russia to present a harp concerto with symphony orchestra on the public stage. Her performance of Charles Oberthür’s then-fashionable Concertino Op 175 was received warmly by critics, although one notes a reserved tone in relation to the harp: ‘To our knowledge, a harp concerto has never yet been performed at a symphonic concert [in Russia]; yet the harp appears a completely legitimate solo instrument, although outstanding virtuosi are quite rarely encountered.’
Yet, it was for her fantasias on popular operas of the day (including Gounoud’s Faust and Verdi’s Rigoletto) that won Walter-Kühne adoration in the fashionable salons of fin-de-siècle Russia. Until their more recent publication, these works were circulated in manuscript in their native Russia, leading to an interestingly varied performance tradition, each version associated with certain pedagogues and cities. Far from being trivial, the Fantasia on Eugene Onegin is beautifully and solidly composed: Walter-Kühne achieves a lissome rendering of the opera’s melancholic string opening (Tatiana’s theme), whilst the famous Act 2 ‘waltz’ and the Act 1 ‘arioso’ (wherein Lensky professes his love to Olga) are vividly realized in the harp’s fullest register, couched in perfect harpistic figures and quicksilver arpeggio work.
Mozart’s own contribution to the repertoire of the harp, namely that of the Concerto for Flute and Harp, K299 is too well-known to dwell on here. But, as with the case of C.P.E. Bach’s, one of the composer’s most popular and recognizable works, the Fantasia in D minor, K379 finds wonderful expression on the harp. Also in common with C.P.E. Bach’s Fantasia in E-flat major, it is thought to have been composed in 1782, although it remained unfinished and unpublished at the time of Mozart’s death in 1791. The sombre mood conjured by the opening leads to the haunting main theme, leant emotional definition by its pronounced use of the three eighth notes preceded by an eighth note rest, an established evocation of the sigh in the musical practice of the time. This is interspersed with three lavish cadenzas that escape the strictures of the tonic-dominant relationship and introduce whirls of chromatic colour. A sportive theme in the key of D major provides a startling opposition to the prevailing mood, and the work closes in unexpected triumph.
J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia, BWV903 (part of a larger work the Fantasia and Fugue, the fugue being omitted on this recording) is a work that is direct and profoundly moving in its emotional breadth and intensity. It stands fortress-like and totally unique among J.S. Bach’s own oeuvre and amongst anything featured so far in this album. As with the works of C.P.E. Bach and Mozart already featured, it demands of the player extravagant scalic and arpeggiated figures in pyrotechnic displays: but rather than an invitation to personal fantasy and intimate reflection, its accumulative effect is rather one of extrovert, dizzying and almost architectural grandeur. In a roughly tripartite structure, the opening is a tour de force of virtuoso writing, whilst the inner section is recitativo, requiring bold, gestural playing, and rhythmic and expressive precision, whereas the third section cleanly combines the two in a surge of characteristic glory. As with a number of J.S. Bach’s works, the Chromatic Fantasia exists in a number of versions, an outcome of J.S. Bach’s eminent and universal suitability to performance on almost any instrument. It should be noted that the artist was inspired to perform this version for harp by the fact that the same work was transcribed for solo viola by Zoltán Kodály. Few could deny that Magen’s harp suffuses this work with compelling fire and intense resonance.
Henriette Renié (1875–1956), a virtuoso, composer and educator of the highest order, is one of the most striking figures in the history of the harp. Her career had an auspicious start: a student of Alphonse Hasselmans (1845–1912) at the Paris Conservatoire, Renié gained the coveted ‘Premier Prix’ in 1887, at the age of just eleven. While it was presumed that such an accolade would herald the end her studies, Renié returned to the Conservatoire as a student of composition; she was the only female student of Théodore Dubois. Renié’s musical language is intimately associated with the style of the mid-nineteenth-century French masters such as Gounoud, Saint-Saëns and Franck and, though her music was for a time unfashionable, her works for harp have enjoyed a much-deserved revival in recent years.
As well as being a great musician, Renié was also a highly literate woman: not only did she leave behind volumes of diaries, written meditations and a wealth of correspondence, she also forged a fervent connection to literature. Based on Poe’s gothic masterpiece, The Tell-Tale Heart, the Ballade Fantastique (1913) is a highly ambitious example of program music that helped free the harp from the unhelpful trappings of its salon repertory. The jagged language of the opening, with highly sharpened rhythmic gestures, establishes the narrator’s nervous obsession with an elderly man whose cataract-ridden eye so fills him with horror, that it drives him to murder the hapless fellow in his sleep. Renié’s masterful exploitation of the harp’s every colour and technical resource, gives a nuanced, episodic rendering of the narrator’s paradoxical affection for his victim (‘I loved the old man! He had never wronged me! He had never given me insult!’), the demonic whispering of his murderous urges, the infamous imagined-beating of a disembodied heart under the floorboards and, finally, the narrator’s impassioned and rambling confession.
Alexander Rider © 2014