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French Reflections

Sivan Magen (harp)
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Recording details: May 2014
Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d'Abernon, Cobham, Surrey, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: September 2015
Total duration: 61 minutes 53 seconds

Cover artwork: Cover by Musicians Designs.
 

For his second album harpist Sivan Magen performs some of the greatest French masterpieces written for harp around the turn of the twentieth century.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.

Reviews

'Harp recitals are almost bound to be appealing, such is the instrument’s seductiveness, but this one has substance, too' (The Sunday Times)» More

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Mystery, detail, subtle harmonies and sublime melody: all things which characterize French music of any era. Perhaps then, it is no surprise that the harp has found its most meaningful expression in this literature. That so many great players of the instrument have been French is also significant. One such artist was Micheline Kahn (1889–1987), and her name is inextricably linked with many of the works in this recital. At the turn of the last century, students of the Paris Conservatoire were examined by a ferocious ‘concours’ and the holder of Premier Prix was expected to represent the highest standards of technical and musical attainment. Kahn was not yet fifteen years of age when, in the summer of 1904, Gabriel Fauré was commissioned to write the pièce de concours, and the young harpist emerged as the first prize winner. Rapturous press comments later recorded that, being faced with a fey teenager, the Paris public and the jury did not conceal its scepticism. Yet ‘from the first notes, it was a delight. Only a true artist could invoke with such grace, such warmth, such surety of taste and great style the sonority of this noble instrument.’

The work in question, the Impromptu, Op 86, must have placed great demands on the composer’s already limited time (Fauré was in addition to his work as a composer, director of the conservatoire and organist at the Church of the Madeleine), and Kahn was later to recall the composer coming into the harp class with the work’s ending, which the hapless students had to furiously copy out by hand. This has led some commentators to doubt the authorship of the piece, attributing large sections of the work to Fauré’s friend Alphonse Hasselmans (1845–1912), a composer and professor of harp at the conservatoire. Yet this has not been conclusively proven, and whatever the doubts, the Impromptu creates an effect of pleasing magnificence. Broad, luscious chords give way to lyrical falling motives which are then developed in a series of virtuosic variations, making use of harmonics, glissandi, cross fingerings and rich arpeggios.

Kahn’s early success naturally gained the attention of Fauré. A self-confessed aficionado of his music, she later wrote to Fauré with a view to transcribing some of his keyboard works. The composer wrote back enthusiastically and Kahn subsequently executed and published delightful arrangements of selections from the Dolly Suite and Pelléas et Mélisande. With the onset of World War I, Fauré became involved in organizing his own concerts for wounded servicemen, of which Kahn was made an immediate feature. Fauré wrote charming notes (sometimes in verse) to the young artist, in which he advised her on her programmes (often including his own Impromptu and Berceuse de Dolly).

As the war drew to a close, he composed the captivating miniature Une châtelaine en sa tour, Op 110 and dedicated it to Kahn. The title is taken from a line of Verlaine’s Une sainte en son auréole, but the unique poetry of this work is quite hard to adequately define. A plaintive song in A minor wanders through ever more poignant harmonies, before a mysterious ‘l’istesso tempo’ section breaks triumphantly into the light of F major; then a canonic treatment of the first theme and a sweet decline into nothingness. Châtelaine, as it is affectionately called by harpists, could be viewed as an elegy. But for whom? For France, torn by war? For Fauré, who was to live only for another six years? Perhaps it is rather an exquisitely drawn portrait of a young woman, emergent in life, captured by one whose journey is reaching its end. The work was premiered just weeks after the armistice, on 30 November 1918.

By the 1920s, Kahn had begun to explore the very limits of the harp repertoire, and had gone in search of rarer works, including those which were composed for the short-lived chromatic harp. The chromatic harp, devised and marketed by Pleyel, did away with the double action pedal mechanism and instead had a string for every note. Extremely difficult to play and lacking resonance, the instrument never gained wide popularity, but nevertheless did have some attractive works in its repertoire. When Kahn learned of an early unpublished work for chromatic harp and orchestra by André Caplet, she made contact with the composer. The work had been poorly received at its premiere in 1908 and Kahn later recorded that Caplet was not even sure what he had done with his manuscript. However, with the assistance of this passionate performer, Caplet reworked his earlier efforts into a sophisticated work for harp and string quartet, and the Conte fantastique was duly premiered by Kahn and the Poulet Quartet at the Salle Erard in 1923.

In tribute to this harpist’s artistry, Caplet composed the Divertissements in 1924: undoubtedly some of the most unique and perfectly executed writing in the harp’s entire literature. Lean and linear, these miniatures have a sheen of ‘art deco’ to the lustre. The Divertissement à la Française takes the form of an étude, with sequences and scalic motives varied at dizzying speed, requiring the greatest technical poise from the harpist. Jagged articulations and jewel-like harmonics complete the refined atmosphere. While the à la Française is marked ‘lively and square’, the Divertissement à l’Espagnole is a more sensuous experience, and bears the delicious (and slightly untranslatable), inscription ‘avec galbe et très drapé’: perhaps a nod to Kahn’s own languid beauty. Bold pedal glissandi (an effect that was still absolutely avant-garde at the time) are interspersed with improvisatory gestures and glittering textures.

Another artist who helped to deepen the understanding of the harp’s expressive resources was the harpist Marcel Tournier. A student of Raphaël Martenot and Alphonse Hasselmans, Tournier succeeded the latter as professor of harp at the Paris Conservatoire (1912–1948). Although he spent a great part of his career as a pedagogue, Tournier was a composer of notable achievements: a student of Lenepveu, Tournier held the Deuxième Prix of the highly coveted Prix de Rome (for his cantata La Roussalka). Truly an exponent of the dreamy impressionist style, Tournier helped to establish the harp as a crucial medium of that movement. Tournier was a man of somewhat imposing aspect.

His student and assistant, Jacqueline Borot (1916–1999) recalled that at times he was ‘altogether disagreeable’. Another eminent pupil, Gérard Devos (b.1927) recalled that ‘with his students at the conservatoire he was rather icy. No one spoke in class; we were awestruck [but] he had the students he liked play quite a lot of his music […] what he loved especially was to write for the harp.’ In other words, it gave this formidable maître great satisfaction to hear his works executed by the crème de la crème (and only that) of his class. Devos also records that many of Tournier’s solo harp works were not commissioned, but were completely spontaneous.

And therein lies the innate appeal of this unique and compelling oeuvre: Tournier was exploring the colouristic and reverberant resources of his instrument. The Sonatine, Op 30, perhaps because of its obvious references to Ravel’s seminal work of the same name for piano, has been occasionally dismissed as a mere copy. On the contrary, it is a substantial and highly idiomatic work. The opening ‘Allègrement’ begins in fine voice, with active motives and direct harmonies. The second movement ‘Calme et expressif’ weaves complex and delicate structures around an almost ardent melody in the harp’s middle register. In this central movement, Tournier achieves a magical sensuality. The final movement, marked ‘Fièvreuesement’ (‘feverishly’) is a tour de force, with characteristic treatment of bold arpeggio figures, leading to an exciting conclusion.

Caplet had been a close friend of Debussy, and his orchestrations of Debussy’s works (most notably of the Children’s Corner) are justly recognized for their brilliance: Debussy’s music lends itself well to transformation. This coupled with that composer’s established bond with the harp, means that the performance of Debussy’s piano music on the harp seems almost logical. In fact, when working with the harpist Pierre Jamet (1893–1991), the composer indicated several numbers from the Préludes that he felt would suit the harp.

The Estampes of 1903 is a three movement work of sheer enchantment, wherein spine-tingling vistas are portrayed with stunning vividness. On this recording we can hear the second and third movements of this piece. ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ utilises pulsating ostinato figures and eastern-sounding scales to evoke the perfumed warmth of the Spanish night. The thrilling strum of guitars completes the image. Meanwhile, in Jardins sous la pluie, we witness the spectacle of a sudden cloudburst in a Normandy village. Making use of tunes from French folklore (Dodo, l’enfant do and Nous n’irons plus au bois), sudden splashes and ripples are faithfully portrayed, with jazzy chromaticism and an infectious character that seems almost to foreshadow Gershwin.

French musicians have always blazed a trail in what is possible for any instrument: from Rameau to Boulez, the complexity and fineness of their forms always mark them out. The French composers of the rising generation have taken the work of their forebears and continually expand the technical and musical demands on players to even greater heights. Music of this sort demands the greatest rhythmical precision. Composers such as Bruno Mantovani (b.1976) search for ever bolder, almost shocking articulations: Tocar opens with ferocious chordal gestures, which by their very reiteration seem antagonistic. The Hispanic title of the work, just as with the standard Italianate Toccata, explores the touch-play duality. As such, Mantovani utilises a breathtaking spectrum of attacks and techniques: furious scalic motives, nail sounds, bisbigliandi and sudden, shrill fortes make this work a testament to the harp’s more virile characteristics. Though aggressive, there are hints of Caplet’s refinement here.

Born of the incredibly fertile imagination and eclectic influences of Phillipe Schoeller, Esstal features delicate figurations floating over sustained tones in the bass, creating an effect of great spaciousness. In the composer’s own words, here translated by Susan Halpern: ‘Here I imagine a harp, peaceful and yet still menacing. Beautiful. Always. Visited by archaic accents—nearly tragic—however without pathos’. Premiered in 2002, the title Esstal is a significant one in this composer’s oeuvre: he has composed an opera of the same name, and an orchestral song cycle based on fragments of it, Songs from Esstal. In a recent interview about the latter work, Schoeller describes a fantasy world presided over by an androgynous queen. Therefore, one cannot but note a connection between Schoeller’s exquisite harp solo and the works of Tournier: this image of an implacable harp of antiquity, as well as a hint of threatening femininity mirrors the Eros and orientalism of much of Tournier’s output. Yet above all, it requires the touch of a musician who understands harp playing as manipulation of pure resonance: what the great French harpist Catherine Michel has called the école de résonance.

Alexander Rider 2015

The ‘turn of the century’ in Paris was the golden age of the harp: the war of manufacturers between Erard’s already well-established double-action pedal harp and the new Pleyel chromatic harp inspired a wave of new commissions for the instrument; Alphonse Hasselmans established his great class at the Paris Conservatoire, and some of his students (Henriette Renié, Micheline Kahn, Marcel Tournier and later Pierre Jamet, Lily Laskine, Marcel Grandjany and Carlos Salzedo) brought to the instrument a new level of virtuosity and expression. Their personal contact with the day’s great composers (not to mention their own compositions) allowed for new and exciting developments in the writing for the harp as a solo instrument. But what contributed most to the final journey of the harp from the salon and the back of the orchestra to the centre stage, was the new French sound—the French composers of the early twentieth century were pre-occupied with sonority, resonance, imagery and exotic modality—which instrument was better suited than the harp to explore those new realms?

During the twentieth century the harp ceased being a predominantly French instrument—composers like Hindemith, Britten, Berio, Lutoslawski, Takemitsu, Ginastera, Rodrigo and Carter gave their voice to this instrument, turning it into a percussive, folksy, cerebral, weepy and sometimes even violent instrument. In this recording, however, I’ve chosen to skip this line of development and return to Paris to confront some of the greatest masterpieces written for this instrument in the early twentieth century, alongside two wonderful pieces which were written more recently. While the development of the late twentieth century are clearly present in these later pieces, and their harmonic and rhythmic languages are very much of the twenty-first century, I find it fascinating how closely the intense melancholy of Schoeller’s Esstal converses with Fauré’s Une châtelaine en sa tour, Op 110 and the colourful virtuosity of Mantovani’s Tocar relates to Tournier’s Fièvreusement and to Caplet’s Divertissement à l’Espagnole. A century apart, in the music of Mantovani and Schoeller, the French harp is still an instrument of sonority, resonance, imagery and exotic modality—but the emotions it expresses are heavy with the events of that century.

Sivan Magen 2015

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