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.
from notes by Alexander Rider © 2015