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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



GLASS HARMONICA
Schulz, Largo; von Holt Sombach, Adagio; Reichardt, Rondeau; Naumann, Sonata III, Mozart, Adagio, K.356, Adagio and Rondo, K.617, Adagio, Rondo; Beethoven, Melodram; Röllig, Kleine Tonstücke; von Apell, Il Trionfo della musica, cantata; von Holt Sombach, Fantasie and Allemand from 1 ère Suite; Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Scena and Aria; von Holt Sombach, Minuet II from 1ère Suite; Thomas Bloch, Sancta Maria.
Thomas Bloch (glass harmonica) with (as programmed) the Rosamunde Quartet; Marc Marder (double bass); Philippe Bernold (flute), Maurice Bourgue (oboe), Jean Sulem (viola), Xavier Gagnepain (cello); Fabrice Di Falco and Yves Le Pech (male sopranos), Damien Top (tenor) and Christine Icart (harp); Montserrat Sanromà (soprano) and Ettore Borri (piano); Fabrice Di Falco (male soprano, baritone and all voice parts).
Recorded 1997 (tracks-1-16) ADS (Ivry-sur-Seine) Auditorium, Strasbourg (track 17) 1998, Labo T (Neuilly Plaisance) France.
NAXOS 8.555295 [70.56]

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Any temptation to classify this fascinating disc as a musical curiosity is easily disposed of by a glance at track list. It contains fourteen works , of which seven are world premiere recordings. These range from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. In all of them the glass harmonica features either as a solo instrument, or is combined with voices or less unfamiliar instruments. But first the listener needs to know what to expect.

The glass harmonica is one of many newly invented instruments that appeared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most of which quickly became obsolete. However, unlike its rivals it captured the public imagination, and in the nineteenth century around four hundred compositions had been written for it, including works by Mozart and Beethoven. Invented in 1743 by an Irishman, Richard Puckeridge, and later mechanised as a pedalled instrument by Benjamin Franklin, it relies on a phenomenon well known to most schoolchildren: that a recognisably musical sound can be produced by stroking a moistened finger around the rim of an ordinary drinking glass. For this instrument bowl-shaped glass discs of graduated sizes, each corresponding to a note in the chromatic scale, are mounted on an axle and rotated by a pedal action. After passing through a shallow water trough they are rotated by the pedal, and when touched by the player’s fingers produce flute-like, ethereal sounds, described by Paganini as "a celestial voice". The instrument attracted many admirers, and in 1829 was considered "the fashionable accessory of parlours and drawing rooms". However, like so many novelties, it went out of fashion. This recording was made on a modern reproduction by Gerhard Finkenbeiner.

Mozart was probably the only famous composer to take the glass harmonica seriously enough to write several fairly extended works for it though, as the contemporary pieces on this disc show, its fascination has remained powerful enough to attract some present-day players and composers. Thomas Bloch is unquestionably a virtuoso, with all the skills necessary to fulfil the roles of soloist, accompanist and ensemble player.

For the solo pieces a fairly low volume setting may be necessary to appreciate the "celestial" quality attributed to the glass harmonica. To my ears its crystalline voice can easily become rather monotonous unless it is set against other instruments, though with them – or with voices sympathetic to its timbre, as on this record – the effect can be magical. Mozart is given a generous 19 minutes, his cool elegance immediately recognisable. Beethoven’s accompaniment to a sad spoken poem lasts a mere sixty seconds. The obvious delight of (to me) unknown composers in exploring new sonorities is engagingly displayed in many of the earlier pieces, and also those by von Holt Sombach (b.1962) who unashamedly turns the clock back to a nineteenth century style without indulging in pastiche, and to pleasant effect. The brief aria from the mad scene in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, now invariably played on a flute, gains little from being restored to its original scoring for glass harmonica. Thomas Bloch’s own Sancta Maria (modestly placed on the final track) is a satisfying, intensely dramatic setting in a decidedly – though not defiantly – atonal idiom that fully establishes the instrument’s right to be seriously considered among the "new sounds" that intrigue so many modern composers. Unquestionably a disc for connoisseurs.

Thomas Bloch’s excellent essay on the history and repertoire of the glass harmonica is included with the insert booklet, and well worth reading. Both he and the maker of the instrument used for this recording have web sites from which more detailed information is available. Bloch’s is www.chez.com/thomasbloch and Finkenbeiner’s is www.finkenbeiner.com.

Roy Brewer


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