Alone or in the company of other instruments, the harp’s unique sonority can evoke either the wind blowing or the heart beating. So it is not surprising that such an instrument inspired the poet Alfred Tennyson to write, “Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might; / Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass’d in music out of sight.” This recording takes the listener through the 20th century, building in intensity as it reveals the harp’s many facets, whether in a solo, accompaniment or chamber music setting. Through the works presented here, the V of Valérie becomes the roman V, the soloist becoming part of a quintet.
Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983): Sonata for Solo Harp
Works by the only woman in the famous Groupe des Six, Germaine Tailleferre, were often viewed as delicate, candid and old-fashioned. Yet well beyond her undoubtedly charming works for piano written between the two World Wars, her compositional palette comprises harmonies of great sensuality and a constant attention to form. Her Sonata for Harp, an essential work of the instrument’s repertoire, was written in 1953 at the request of Nicanor Zabaleta. “He came to see me, and I found him so charming, so pleasant and he played marvelously well that I was delighted by his proposal,” she wrote. While she had frequently used the harp in her orchestral compositions, Tailleferre had never before focused on the instrument’s many expressive possibilities. The work’s three movements comprise a bright march, a languid habanera (in homage to the dedicatee’s homeland) and a dazzling perpetuum mobile on the first jazzy theme.
Murray Schafer (1933-): Wild Bird, for violin and harp
Wild Bird by R. Murray Schafer is of an altogether different style, the harp supporting and restating the music of the violin. Written in 1997 for Jacques Israelievitch’s 50th birthday (at the request of his wife, Gabrielle), this appealing duet celebrates the remarkable versatility of the violinist, acclaimed for his gifts as a chamber musician, soloist and concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 2008. The title refers to Israelievitch’s hair, which Schafer recalls he had dyed a “rather vivid orange” at the time.
Philippe Hersant (1948-): Choral for cello and harp
André Jolivet’s student and a protégé of Henri Dutilleux and Gilbert Amy, Philippe Hersant styles himself as a composer who readily draws upon the entire heritage of music from Monteverdi to Stockhausen extracting material he fashions into his own works. Dedicated to Jakez François (president of Harpes Camac, the work’s commissioner), along with Isabelle Moretti and Henri Demarquette, who premiered the work in Arles on October 24, 2004, Choral for cello and harp is based on an old plainsong chant, the same one used by Haydn in the “Adagio” of his Symphony No. 26, the text of which comes from the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah. “I also made use of this melody from one end of the work to the other,” explains Hersant. “The contours and character of the melody are immutable, but harmonic changes and variations in instrumental colour place it in a new light whenever it returns.”
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) (Arr. : Carlos Salzedo et François Vallieres) : Sonatina in Trio for Flute, Viola et Harp
Maurice Ravel wrote the initial drafts of the first movement of his Sonatine for piano (adapted here for flute, viola and harp) in 1903 for a composition contest launched by the art and literary magazine Weekly Critical Review. When the magazine found itself facing bankruptcy, the contest was abruptly cancelled. Two years later, Ravel completed the second and third movements of the work and dedicated it to his friends Ida and Cipa Godebski. Sonatine was premiered in Lyon on March 10, 1906, by the pianist Paule de Lestang. A second performance was given by Gabriel Grovlez in Paris. Ravel himself regularly performed the first two movements in recital, notably during his 1928 tour of North America. Cyclical in form, Sonatine harkens back to the elegance and musical structures of the late 18th century. The opening measures present a motif that appears throughout the work: a descending perfect fourth and its inversion (a perfect fifth), supported by a flowing accompaniment. The modal inflections of the middle movement recall his Menuet antique. Ravel told his friend the pianist Marguerite Long that one should play this minuet “in the tempo of the minuet from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 31 no. 3” (“Moderato e grazioso”). The dazzling toccata of the finale is descended directly from Rameau and Couperin, though it is also reminiscent of Debussy’s Mouvements. The great harpist Carlos Salzedo made a trio arrangement of the work (reworked here by François Vallieres). When Ravel heard it, his response was quoted as being "Why didn't I think of that?"
Jean Françaix (1912-1997): Quintet No. 2 for Flute, String Trio and Harp
“I have had the composition bug since my earliest youth,” said Jean Françaix. “Creating something from a blank page is so intoxicating! To break free of one’s personal prison is such a privilege.” He published his first work in 1921, at the age of nine, solemnly promising his father that he would take over from Saint-Saëns. Throughout his prolific career, he was equally comfortable writing concertos for various instruments, ballets, operas, and chamber music. He was partial to short, effervescent movements, and his writing style was light, with a flair for melodic invention. He completed his Quintet No. 2 for Flute, Harp and String Trio on September 18, 1989, but it was not premiered until October 15, 1992, by members of the Berlin Philharmonic. The outer sections of the three-part first movement overflow with an almost childlike enthusiasm, a delightful complement to the lyrical central section. A pizzicato dialogue between harp and violin introduces the bright and playful scherzo. Muted strings then create a hushed atmosphere for an enchanting nocturne, before a rondo on a theme derived from the opening “Allegrissimo” brings the work to its evanescent conclusion.