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Glière, Debussy & Mozart: Harp Concertos

Claire Jones (harp), English Chamber Orchestra, Paul Watkins (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2010
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by John H West
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Alex Foster
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 66 minutes 40 seconds

The Gliere Harp Concerto has always been a favorite among harp enthusiasts; written in the 1930s, the work’s stylistic features are reminiscent of the Viennese classical style united with Russian romantic nationalism. This album highlights the extraordinary talent of the Official Harpist to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, Claire Jones.

She is joined by renowned flautist William Bennet OBE, and the English Chamber Orchestra to complete the release with Mozart’s Concerto for flute, harp and Orchestra and Debussy’s Danses pour Harpe Chromatique.

Claire has performed for members of the Royal Family on more then 70 occasions and has recently performed a brand new Royal Commission by Patrick Hawes at Highgrove House with the Philharmonia Orchestra. She is also featured on a new release with the National Youth Choir of Scotland, performing Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols.


'Mozart's Flute and Harp Concerto is here given an unusually lively performance with Paul Watkins and the ECO … very well recorded to bring out the crispness of ensemble … the result is tuneful and passionate in the extended first movement, easily lyrical in the second. The finale relies on themes with a folk flavour, culminating in an excitingly brisk coda … splendidly celebrating the artistry of Claire Jones' (Gramophone)

'Few artists have been more active in the recording studios in the past year than Claire Jones, the official harpist to Princes Charles. Her latest album, Claire Jones: Harp Concertos (4 Stars) is recommended to all harp fans and to lovers of good tunes. It winningly combines Mozart’s evergreen Flute And Harp Concerto with the veteran flautist William Bennett, Debussy’s Danse Sacree and Danse Profance, and Gliere’s Harp Concerto. Gliere’s concerto is beautifully crafted and packed full of toothsome melodies—a bit sugary perhaps but, for me, irresistible. It has always astonished me it isn’t better known. I hope Claire Jone’s excellent performance, with the English Chamber Orchestra under Paul Watkins, will bring its many merits to the attention of a wider audience' (Daily Mail)

According to the French musicologist Emile Vuillermoz, the harp—whose history can be traced back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia—has always preserved ‘the most lofty patrician traditions of priestly ritual, of nobility and elegance’. We may add the bardic traditions of using it as an accompaniment to folk ballad of epic poem. In addition, it is an instrument that can adapt itself to a multitude of musical situations—to state a melody, to thread its way through passages of polyphony, to become a harmonic accompaniment, and even to rival keyboard instruments on the level of virtuosity. Be that as it may, it took European composers a long time to make good use of its wealth of expressive resources. It was only in the late 18th century that it began to be used in a more widespread way as a concert soloist, either on itsown or with other instruments.

Indeed, Mozart’s Concerto in C major for flute and harp, K 299 is best understood as the last of a group of concertante works that he wrote for the flute, all in a short space of time. It was composed very soon after the two Flute Concertos K 313 and 314 and the Andante in C major, K 315, which all date from about January or February 1778 and were written while Mozart was in Mannheim. By April, when this concerto was apparently written, he had moved to Paris, and the unusual combination of solo instruments was determined by the fact that it was a commission from the Comte de Guines, Adrien-Louis Bonnières de Souastre, a former French envoy to England, who was a keen amateur flautist. His flute had an extension that allowed him to play the low notes D flat and C, not then available on a normal flute, and this is the only flute work in which Mozart calls for those pitches. His daughter, who was having composition lessons from Mozart, was a capable harp player—she played ‘magnifique’ according to Mozart’s letters. But four months later, he was complaining that he still hadn’t been paid for the work!

In fact one might have expected that the commission would hardly have inspired Mozart, who professed to dislike both solo instruments (there is no other work by Mozart featuring a harp) and had a low opinion of French musical taste. Yet he duly delivered the concerto, and thereby produced a work that has remained popular throughout the two succeeding centuries. (Works for flute and harp were later to become much more common than in Mozart’s time.) Some critics, it is true—such as Charles Rosen, in his book The Classical Style—have deplored the concerto as ‘hackwork’: though Rosen qualifies this by remarking ‘it is true that Mozart’s hackwork is a lesser composer’s inspiration, and his craftsmanship is significant even here’. In fact whatever Mozart felt about the two instruments individually, in combination they seem to have excited his imagination to produce music both blithe and sophisticated. Harp technique was not very far advanced in the late eighteenth century, and the instrument was often treated as a sort of plucked piano. To some extent this is also Mozart’s approach—especially in the patterns of five and ten notes that occur in all three movements (harpists are generally more comfortable with four-note and eight-note patterns)—but there are many places in the concerto where it is clear that the distinctive timbre and sonority of the harp was very much in his mind. The small orchestral forces (there are just two oboes, two horns, and strings) the concerto is well suited for the intimacy of salon performance.

Formally the work is almost a textbook example of an early Mozart concerto. At the outset the orchestra blithely introduces two contrasted themes (the second announced by the horn), which are then taken up by the soloists. As the movement progresses the soloists sometimes play with the orchestra, and sometimes form an unaccompanied duo while the orchestra is silent. Harp and flute have the melody and its accompaniment alternately, and are also often in counterpoint with each other, creating a charming dialogue. The formal development section is quite brief, leading to a full recapitulation, withspace for a cadenza, and a coda.

The exquisite slow movement, an Andantino in F major, is enriched in texture by the fact that the violas are divided throughout. The main subject, ushered in by the strings, beings in short phrases but these become longer, and the movement evolves as a set of increasingly florid variations on this opening theme, displaying the lyrical qualities of the two solo instruments against a sensitive orchestral backdrop. Mozart titled the finale ‘Rondeau’, perhaps in deference to his French flautist-patron, but also perhaps to signal the fact that this substantial movement is not quite a conventional rondo-finale. The form is an almost symmetrical seven-section one, A-B-C-D-C-B-A, with a cadenza before the final appearance of A, so that it is more like an arch-form that unwinds from its mid-point. Nevertheless traces of the ‘A’ section are to be heard in sections C and D, so the music seems in any case to honour the rondo principle of recurrence. Whatever the structure, the effect is the same—that of a joyous succession of memorable tunes.

The harp was a favourite instrument of the French Impressionist composers, undoubtedly because of its the ability to dissolve music in glissandi and arpeggios, ability to play crystalline passages of harmonics, and general associations of antiquity. All these features are summed up in Claude Debussy’s Danses pour Harpe et Orchestre à Cordes, which has become one of the most familiar orchestral works in the harpist’s repertoire. It was commissioned in 1904 for a competition at the Brussels Conservatoire sponsored by the firm of Pleyel, though the first public performance was given by Madame L. Wurmser-Delcourt at a Colonne concert in Paris on 6 November 1904. The purpose of the work was to demonstrate the possibilities of the ‘chromatic harp’ which had been invented in 1897 by Gustave Lyon, the chief director of the firm, to whom Debussy’s work is dedicated. The double-action harp in normal use, with its 47 strings, can only sound all the 81 chromatic notes of its compass of six and a half octaves by means of a complicated system of seven pedals that gave each string the possibility of sounding three different notes (its basic note, or the semitone or the whole tone above). Lyon’s harp aimed to do away with this cumbrous technique. His idea was to adapt the principle of piano stringing to the harp, providing the player with a string for each note, in two crossed rows, and dispense with pedals entirely.

Unfortunately, the new instrument did not find favour with harpists: the great number of strings that had to be attached to the soundingboard damped the instrument’s resonance and adversely affected its tone; it was also larger and much heavier than the standard harp and took much longer to tune. Worst of all, it could only play glissandos—the harpist’s stock-in-trade—in one key, C major. As a result players quickly returned to the standard double-action harp, and it is on this instrument that Debussy’s Danses has nearly always been played.

In 1907 Debussy wrote to Manuel de Falla, who was going to play a piano version of the Danses in Madrid, that in interpreting them ‘the best thing, I think, is to be guided by how youfeel… The colour of the two dances seems to me to be clearly defined. There’s something to be got out of the passage between the “gravity” ofthe first one and the “grace” of the second…’.

The first of the movements, Danse sacrée, is in D minor, poised and gracious, with a hint of ritual, the harp writing almost entirely in chords as it unfolds a chaste, modally-inflected and rhythmically flexible line. The pastel transparency of the writing both for harp and for strings suggests that in this sweet and stately piece Debussy wished to evoke the associations of the harp with the Classical world, especially that of ancient Greece, in the spirit perhaps of his friend Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies for piano, which he much admired, and of his own Chansons de Bilitis. The music of this dance dies away in a repeated falling fourth, D-A, which then becomes the underpinning bass of the second movement, Danse profane, which is a kind of fantasy-waltz in D major. The waltz tempo gives it rhythmic stability, but here the interplay between harp and strings is much more capricious than in Danse sacrée. The way that the themes and dynamics ebb and flow may remind us of Debussy’s La Mer, on which he was at work when he wrote the Danses. This second dance is ‘profane’ in the sense of a love of nature and earthly existence, and rises to a surprisingly passionate climax before the quiet close.

While Mozart's K 299 is a youthful work, and Debussy's Danses of his early maturity, the Harp Concerto by Reinhold Glière is a production of its composer’s old age. Of Belgian descent, but born in Kiev, Ukraine, Glière was a close co-eval of Rachmaninov, and became a pupil of Arensky, Taneyev and Ippolitov-Ivanov at the Moscow Conservatoire. He later taught in Moscow and Kiev, researched Azerbaijan, Uzbek and Ukrainian folksong and finally settled in Moscow in 1920. His early works show the colourful Russian cosmopolitan style, imbued with the accents of Russian folk music but treated with considerable orchestral sophistication, that he had learned from his teachers, and he did not modify his idiom much throughout his long life—certainly not with the transition of Tsarist Russia to the Communist USSR. While keeping himself out of the political limelight, Glière managed to prosper under the new regime, for whom his brand of colourful nationalism, romantic aspiration and classical form was pretty well the officially-approved idiom.

Glière is best known for such vivid orchestral scores as his massive Third Symphony (Ilya Murometz) and the colourful Soviet ballet The Red Poppy, but he wrote works in a wide variety of genres and sometimes for unusual combinations, such as his 1942 Concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra. He composed his Harp Concerto in E flat major, op 74 in 1938 for the harpist Ksenia Erdeli (1878-1971), whom he consulted so frequently on the effectiveness and practicality of his harp writing that he eventually offered to name her as joint composer of the work—an honour she declined. Scored for a comparatively small orchestra, the Harp Concerto could easily be performed by a chamber orchestra, which enhances its quality of charm and intimacy.

There is in fact little in its idiom to tell the listener in which century it was composed, and virtually nothing that couldn’t have been written 50 years before its actual date. Stylistically it is redolent both of Viennese classical style, with a tincture of Russian romantic nationalism—an ‘archaic’ mixture we are most familiar with in works like Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana Suite

The three movements are conceived on an ample scale. The first is a full-scale, rather dreamy sonata-form movement with a highly melodic second subject that has been compared with Rachmaninov for sweeping lyricism. The Anadante second movement, begun by a brooding, low-lying passage in the strings, is cast as a theme and variations, the rather plaintive theme being simply announced by the harp. There are six variations, some of them calling for considerable bravura from the soloist. The finale is a cheerful and carefree rondo, its main tune almost Mozartian in cut and rhythm, but with plentiful displays of Russian folk-colouring in the intervening episodes.

Malcolm MacDonald © 2010

Ever since I can remember, the thought of performing a concerto with an orchestra fuelled my passion, determination, and enthusiasm to become a professional musician. Therefore, the opportunity of creating this album was one of the most truly memorable experiences of my life so far

I was over-whelmed by the superb level of artistry displayed by the people around me during the two days of recording, and can only thank them sincerely for their musicianship and professionalism within their fields of expertise.

I would particularly like to thank the following:
Paul Watkins and the English Chamber Orchestra—for such a high standard of excellence.
William Bennett OBE—for his superb musicianship, support and encouragement on every occasion.
Skaila Kanga—my mentor for her incredible wisdom, guidance, expertise, and for always being there.
John West, Mike Hatch, and all at Signum Classics for the smooth running and production of the CD.
Paul Wing—my manager for his professional advice and organisation of the recording.
Angharad Wynne—my publicist for her invaluable support and guidance.

Claire Jones © 2010

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