MARK GRESHAM | 22 MAR 2021
The use of harp rather than piano lends a delicate, often enchanting sonority to chamber music, including duos with other instruments. That’s not to say that it cannot express exuberance, or other forceful emotions. But modern concert grand pianos are designed primarily fro one thing: power to be heard in a large hall, especially over an orchestra. The harp is not the insides of a piano taken out of the box and stood on end. Far from it. It is an instrument with its own character, construction, idiomatic aspects, and has a heritage which is much older than the piano, harpsichord and even organ. The typical modern concert harp, with its 47 strings, seven pitch adjusting double-action pedals, and six-and-a half octave range, has been increasingly in vogue since the early 19th century, when double-action pedal systems were first patented. And it is substantially more portable than a piano – so the harpist plays their own instrument, rather than being stuck with a keyboard that they may or may not particularly like. But it need not be thought of as a “substitute” for piano – it is itself.
Camille Saint-Saëns composed his Fantaisie in A Major, Op. 124 for harp and violin in 1907. It was the second of three significant works he composed featuring the harp, which includes an earlier Fantaisie for solo harp (1893), and Morceau de Concert for harp and orchestra (1918). Although this middle-child Fantaisie is a single movement, it is episodic, comprised of a number of distinct short sections. While offering a feeling of spontaneity, the music is clear and well crafted. It would be easy to be overly sentimental, given the certain kind of French charm that is all-too-typical of its time, but the performers, violinist Jessica Shuang Wu and harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, didn’t quite go there, although their performance still had some wiggle room available to lean a little more in that direction without going overboard.
The two works in the middle of the program were for solo harp: Quatre Morceaux (“Four Pieces”) by Mel Bonis (1858–1937) and Spindrift by Johanna Selleck (b. 1959), both women. Johnson has a penchant for championing women composers, as does her chamber group, the Merian Ensemble.
A prolific French late-Romantic composer, Mélanie Hélène Bonis chose the pen name Mel Boris so as to not discourage performances of her music, given prevailing public social attitudes toward appropriate roles for women during her lifetime. Although she wrote over 300 pieces works in all, she struggled to get her music heard.
If you do a Google search for a Quatre Morceaux for by Mel Boris, you won’t find it, because it is actually four of her compositions for piano, arranged for harp by Johnson: ”Près du ruisseau” (“Near the Stream”), “Berceuse,” “Mélisande” and “Desdémona” – the last two being from the first volume of collected piano music by Boris, Femmes de légende (“Legendary Women”) edited by Eberhard Mayer (Furore Verlag).
Johnson’s transcriptions are pleasant very successful in and of themselves, which suggests that pianists interested in women’s music should turn due attention to examining the originals by Mélanie Hélène Bonis (aka Madame Domange, as her parents arranged for her to marry the businessman Albert Domange, 25 years her senior, after they learned she had fallen in love with a fellow student at the Paris Conservatoire and that they planned marriage – an idea to which they objected).
Spindrift, by Australian composer Johanna Selleck takes its name the sea spray blown from cresting waves during a gale which “drifts” in the direction of the gale, which is one of the telltale characteristics used by mariners at sea to define a Force 8 wind on the Beaufort Scale. But it is also poetic, as when Marcel Proust used Leucothea, the classical goddess of spindrift, as a metaphor for the mist that covers a young man’s eyes when gazing upon a beautiful woman. Most essentially, the piece evokes imagery of transformation and change of wind and water, taking on the character of a fantasy about the ocean – thus fitting well within this program’s apparent theme.
Detailed, colorful, and wide-ranging in expression, Spindrift was for me the most interesting and engaging piece on the program, both as composition and as performance. Unfolding organically from the single opening motive, Spindrift is a winningly attractive piece of contemporary repertoire for harp.
Johnson was joined by violist Yinzi Kong for the final work on the program, the Fantasy Sonata for viola and harp by Arnold Bax, composed in 1927 and dedicated to Madame Maria Korchinska.
Bax’s music is both whimsical and heroic, capturing both Celtic and Nordic flavors within a personal early 20th-century British style. In his heyday, he was considered an important but isolated figure in British music, but in his late years his music had become regarded as old-fashioned, and it was generally neglected for a time after his death. Nevertheless, Bax has been making a bit of a comeback over the last quarter-century due to an upswing in recordings of his music.
This piece was given a strong performance and, at 25 minutes duration, proved a substantive final work, filled with energy and convincingly played. ■