Spending eternity sitting on a fluffy, pink cloud,
dressed in only a pure white nightie, and playing on a harp is not
my idea of "heaven", either with or without a capital "H"!
Donít get me wrong: as far as I am concerned the harp is the
most sumptuous-sounding instrument ever to grace a concert platform,
and so often the lynch-pin of all the glow and glitter of our most colourful
music. Yet, the prospect of listening to nigh on two whole hours of
wall-to-wall harping fills me with foreboding: what if some misguided
Superior Being should slightly misinterpret my purpose - as some sort
of wishful thinking? Not that Iím superstitious, you understand, but
perhaps the caveat to resist swallowing the whole recording in one gulp
should, in this particular case, be taken rather more seriously than
Anyway, what have we here? One hefty, old-fashioned
double-CD case bearing a rose-tinted illustration that overlays a picture
of a harp (so far, so good) on one of a well made-up, pretty, and wistful-looking
wench doing her level best to project the "Romantic" bit of
the productionís title. To an old cynic like me, her level best adds
up to something between "soppy" and just plain "bored".
Iím starting to get this nagging feeling that this is one of those "themed"
issues, packed with designer classics to grace the designer wallpaper
at your average designer dinner-party.
Not to worry, after all this is a Brilliant Classics
production. Mindful of the exemplary presentation of their superb Shostakovich
Symphonies set, I excitedly ripped off (insofar as this confounded material
will permit) the shrink-wrapping to see what erudition the booklet offered.
Ah! Problem. No booklet. Not even a thin, inadequate one!
I wonder, what is the point of a hefty, old-fashioned double-CD case
if not to make room for a hefty, old-fashioned informative booklet?
Our enlightenment regarding the contents depends entirely on the track
listings on the back U-card.
With growing trepidation, I turned over the box and
. . . yes (phew!) there is a listing. Is it time to dance in
the street? No, not quite. Sure enough, each pieceís composer, title,
and running time are given, but there is vital information conspicuous
by its absence. It is glaringly obvious that many of the pieces must
be arrangements - Brahms, for example, was hardly renowned for his equali
for harps - but arrangers are not credited. Yet, daft as it might seem,
we know even less about the more unfamiliar pieces, as we canít
even be sure whether they are "originals" or "arrangements".
For example, just because Salzedo and Grandjany were themselves harpists
does not guarantee that their works presented here were written for
the harp, does it? Anyway, look after that U-card, itís the only reference
to the contents - the CDs themselves, which for reasons that elude me
are not rose-tinted but a fairly yucky yellow (a mustardy colour more
readily associated with retching than romance), carry what must be counted
as the absolute minimum of information.
It doesnít sound very promising thus far, does it?
Never mind, hope springs eternal in the breast of the eternal optimist,
so letís consider those all-important contents. At this point, things
start to buck up - the sound quality is excellent. On CD1, the ensemble
of what seems like four harps (aye, youíre right, we arenít even told
how many!) is spread across the foreground, quite closely "miked"
in the intimate manner of a string quartet, but with of plenty of resonant
space behind. This gives an overall cosy bloom to the sound that nevertheless
avoids blunting the razor-sharp edges of the upper end of the harpís
range. A similar tale can be told of CD2, except that here we have just
the one harp, and a smidgin of residual background hiss that betrays
the recordingís analogue origins (no, there are no recording dates,
Some of the obvious arrangements are more successful
than others. Of course, this conclusion depends rather heavily on the
criteria by which you measure "success". In my book, the only
thing that matters is not how close to the original the arrangement
comes, but how convincing the music sounds as a work for harp(s). To
filch a fashionable bit of business-speak, one of the "key success
factors" relates to the harpís sustaining power which, in its middle
and upper registers, hardly rivals a spinet let alone a concert grand.
Needless to say, when the harp is compared with wind instruments and
(especially) bowed strings there is, in this respect, no contest! A
literal transcription for harp of an original work that is (a) slow,
and (b) sparsely populated note-wise will, to say the least, sound a
So it is with, the first three tracks of CD1. The ponderous
plodding of Saint-Saënsís The Swan, Offenbachís Barcarolle,
and Schumannís Träumerei has much less to do with the performances
than it does with the arrangements, which I feel just do not work. The
same is true of the Brahms Waltz in A flat, which would have
been "B flat" were it not for some sensitive tempo tweakings
by the NY Harp Ensemble. Ieuan Jones on CD2 has the same problem with
the Khachaturian Oriental Dance, which I presume is an arrangement
- Iím not familiar with this tune, and equally unaware of any inclination
towards solo harp works on the part of Khachaturian. Not that it matters,
either way itís as dull as ditchwater, and thereís nothing that Jones
can do about that.
That, you will be relieved to hear, is just about all
the bad news! After those first three dull items on CD1, Auguste Durandís
Chaconne comes as a real breath of fresh air, a thoroughly charming
little piece that has everything the former pieces lacked. Itís much
livelier and more mobile, the rollicking little tune bristling with
busy baroque scurryings, leaving no room for boredom to fill. It must
be catching, because the subsequent arrangement of Boccheriniís famous
String Quintet Minuet movement is similarly full of life, the
amiable tune rolling deliciously off the harpsí strings as if to the
The Japanese folksong makes a terrific novelty item,
with added percussion and some brilliant koto imitations. Hardly surprisingly,
Straussís Pizzicato Polka is a "natural" that works
a real treat, coming across as just that bit more golden than orchestral
strings. On the other hand, Anitraís Dance by Grieg is
a surprise, and a really pleasant one at that, full of bounce and with
lashings of well-judged variations of attack. And so it goes on: if
Hidasís Hungarian Folksongs are nothing like Bartók, they combine
jollity and a degree of idiomatic sonority, whilst the Spanish arrangements
perhaps owe something to the affinity between harp and guitar (yes,
I know these were originally piano works, but Iím referring to the guitar
sounds implied by the pianistic style!). The Granados item is particularly
successful, featuring a gorgeous, whirring rhythm reminiscent of a passage
in Rodrigoís Fantasia para un Gentilhombre. For some peculiar
reason, the NY Harp Ensembleís recital ends with the two Albeniz Malagueñas,
which are both for solo harp! Ah, well, I suppose it links nicely
to CD2, doesnít it?
Charmingly as the NY folk played, they have to yield
to the stunning virtuosity of Ieuan Jones. With a name like that, Iíll
just bet that heís Welsh, and boy can this boyo play!
At least part of this impression must be down to his choice of music.
Apart from the aforementioned Oriental Dance, everything is generally
much more up the harpís street. For example, several of the pieces make
use of what I noted down as a Rachmaninov-style "left hand",
one that is always busy joining up the dots, most notably in the opening
Grandjany piece and in Fauréís Une Chatelaine, which have
a liquidity that is missing in those prosaic arrangements on CD1. Jones,
however, is always going that bit further, in his mixing of attack,
variations of texture, and sensitivity to the musicís dynamic shading.
I could waffle on for ages (OK, I have waffled
on for ages!) about the felicities in Jonesí playing, but Iíll restrain
myself to some highlights. Try Tailleferreís tangy Sonate (the
U-card helpfully lists the three movements as "First Movement",
"Second Movement", and "Third Movement") for a bit
of French "sass", or Fauréís Après une Rève
for a distinct feeling of singer and guitar, or the Damase item to discover
just how many notes can be spun around a simple tune, or Debussyís Claire
de Lune as an example of how to "work" a slow piece, or the
comparatively formidable Roussel Impromptu for something to spoil
the designer wallpaper. Most of all, donít miss the closing Salzedo
Variations - after a somewhat Handelian prelude, this builds
up into a showpiece par excellence, the harpistís answer to Paganiniís
To sum up: package - nul points; documentation
- as near as dammit to nul points; recordings - more than acceptable;
content - variable, but a lot more worth hearing than not; performances
- never less than good, frequently enchanting, and occasionally "totally
gob-smacking"! If I admit that quite a lot of this would serve
as "designer classics" (etc.). Iíd also have to say that it
would also be a waste of quite a lot of thoroughly rewarding listening.
Try it, itíll be worth the Brilliant Classics price just for that incredible
piece of Salzedo.