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Carlos SALZEDO (1885-1961)
Night Breeze – the Harp Music of Carlos Salzedo

Short Stories in Music, Book I (1934) [12:26]
Short Stories in Music, Book II (1934) [11:08]
Suite of Eight Dances (1943) [14:33]
Prelude for a Drama (1948) [4:29]
Préludes intimes (1919) [5:58]
Variations sur un thème dans le style ancien, Op. 30 (1911, revised 1954) [15:12]
Sarah Schuster Ericsson (harp)
rec. 13-14 February 2003, Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California
CAMBRIA CD-1151 [66:39]



Of Basque ancestry, the young Carlos Salzedo – whose mother was a pianist and his father a singer – very early demonstrated precocious musical abilities. He studied piano and by the age of nine his teachers in Bordeaux recommended that he be taken to Paris, where he might receive more advanced tuition than they could give him. He was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, making rapid progress as a pianist; he also took up the harp and made astonishingly quick progress on his new instrument. Indeed he was later awarded – on the same day! – the Conservatoire’s first prizes for both piano and harp. In 1909 he became harpist in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, under the direction of Toscanini. He quickly became both a musical and social success in New York. On honeymoon in Europe the newly married Salzedo found himself drafted into the French army at the outbreak of war; he was discharged because of illness and was able to make his way back to the U.S.A. As a performer, a composer and a teacher he was an important presence on the American musical scene for the rest of his life.

Salzedo was a fine interpreter of the traditional repertoire of the harp; but he was also an innovator, with interests in the avant-garde. He and Edgar Varèse became good friends and worked together in the establishment of the International Composer’s Guild in 1921, which did so much to introduce new music to American audiences. Indeed in 1923 he played in the premiere of Varèse’s Ionisation, playing Chinese blocks rather than harp.

Salzedo’s own compositions colourfully exploit the instrumental resources of the harp, resources which he knew so well and which he did much to extend. Some of his work is reminiscent of that other Basque (well, half Basque) Ravel; some stretches the boundaries of his impressionist inheritance.

Almost all the work to be heard on this CD consists of miniatures with programmatic titles. The two volumes of Short Stories in Music contain some fifteen short pieces, one some two and half minutes long, several less than a minute, with titles such as ‘The Dwarf and the Giant’, ‘Madonna and Child’, ‘At Church’ and ‘The Mermaid’s Chimes’. A number of these – including the last two just named – contain some exquisite writing, beautifully conceived in terms of the instrument. The Suite of Eight Dances was published only in 1943 but contains a Polka said to have been first written when Salzedo was five! The Gavotte which opens the suite is particularly attractive and the brief (barely more than thirty seconds) Seguidilla is richly evocative of Andalusian rhythms. The Tango is a gorgeously seductive piece – indeed, this Suite as a whole is a minor masterpiece. So too is the Prelude for a Drama – at four and half minutes the longest single composition on the CD. This Prelude is by turns meditative and ominous, delicate single notes leading to some rich chordal writing.

Of the two early works which close the programme, the Variations is the more familiar, its technical tests considerable – Sarah Schuster Ericsson describes it as "one of the most physically demanding compositions for the harp" – and its musical rewards similarly considerable. Perhaps one or two of the variations on Salzedo’s dignified theme come close to being technical demonstrations or test-pieces, but most of the variations – such as ‘Trills’ or ‘Barcarolle’ – have genuine beauties to offer, and reveal themselves as the work of, not just a virtuoso performer, but of a musical mind of impressive intelligence, a mind with a real interest in compositional possibilities and challenges. Much the same goes for the Préludes intimes, though perhaps there is less musical substance here and a bit more readiness to settle for some relatively familiar harp routines.

Salzedo’s music rewards attentive listening – most of what is recorded here is not at all the rather wishy-washy mood music which sometimes passes for music for solo harp. And at the hands (and feet) of Sarah Schuster Ericsson it gets the kind of performance it deserves, committed and serious, with enough panache to do justice to the flair and colour of the music but never giving way to mere flashiness. Ericsson’s control of dynamic contrast is particularly impressive; her instruments – she plays two Lyon and Healey harps, a Concert Grand 23 and a ‘Salzedo’ model – are well recorded in a spacious, but not over resonant, acoustic.

Glyn Pursglove

 


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