Visions – Lavinia
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Suite, Op. 83 (1969)
I. Overture [3.04]
II. Toccata [1.29]
III. Nocturne [3.04]
IV. Fugue [1.14]
V. Hymn, St. Denio [5.47]
Spiders, Op. 48 (1985)
I. The Dancing White Lady [3.17]
II. The Red-Backed Spider [1.31]
III. The Black Widow [3.24]
IV. Tarantula [2.26]
Bugs, Op. 93 (2006)
I. Late Night ANT-ics! [3.01]
II. The Lonely Locust [4.03]
III. Mosquito Massacre [5.12]
Visions in Twilight (2000) [7.09]
Isang YUN (1917-1995)
In Balance (1987) [11.24]
Toru TAKEMITSU (1930-1996)
Stanza II for harp and tape (1971) [6.14]
Lavinia Meijer (harp)
rec. August 2009, Doopsgezinde Kerk, Deventer, The Netherlands
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS
SA 29709 [63:08]
One of the great pleasures of reviewing is the discovery of unfamiliar repertoire and artists. Happily, this new disc from Channel Classics scores on both counts. Featuring the Korean-born harpist Lavinia Meijer – she was adopted by a Dutch family – this recital offers an inspired programme of 20th- and 21st-century pieces recorded in a gorgeous acoustic by Jared Sacks, one of the industry’s foremost producers and engineers. Channel – which has just celebrated its 20th anniversary – has a clutch of award-winning discs to its name, among them a highly regarded Mahler Fourth from Ivan Fischer and his Budapest band. And if that weren’t enough, the company produces some of the most natural-sounding SACDs around.
So, very high expectations, but does this disc deliver? Oh yes, yes and yes again. Meijer starts off with the Britten Suite, composed for the Welsh harpist Osian Ellis (b. 1928). Straight away I was struck by the force of her musical personality, the stately Overture superbly articulated and subtly nuanced. Invariably when listening to Britten one is reminded of the assurance and originality of his writing, and this performance reinforces that point. As an instrument the harp is hard to record well, but Sacks has done an exemplary job; the sound is full and detailed, every skitter and skirl faithfully rendered. Just listen to the dark resonance of the lower strings at the Overture’s end, all captured in the airiest of acoustics.
The Toccata is a miraculous miniature, with some lovely arpeggios, the Nocturne a moody little number, distinctly Satie-esque in its unquiet ramblings. But it’s in the short Fugue that Meijer produces some of the most liquid tones imaginable, the closing Hymn a discreet set of variations on a Welsh tune. Rarely have I heard harp playing of such delicacy and poise, the crisp upper register counterbalanced by a dark, woody bass that beguiles the mind and caresses the ear. But make no mistake, this is muscular, thrustful music, and Meijer delivers it with plenty of passion and power.
The Welsh theme continues with Briton Paul Patterson’s Spiders, commissioned for the North Wales Festival and premiered by Osian Ellis in 1984. Quoted in Hans Heg’s excellent liner notes, the composer reveals the inspiration for the work is twofold – the harpist’s fingers flitting over the web-like strings and his sudden encountered with a Red-Backed Spider on a visit to Australia. ‘The Dancing White Lady’ is a witty little piece, full of fun and flourishes, but behind the charm lie some formidable technical challenges that Meijer tackles with disarming ease. Again I was just astounded by the harp’s vast range of colours and expressive possibilities.
Arachnophobes will be dismayed to hear the Red-Backed Spider’s favourite hiding place is the toilet, comical pitch changes cleverly evoking the beastie’s skittish movements; and although the sustained introduction to ‘The Black Widow’ is more menacing, listeners may be surprised to find that much of this spidery portrait is devoted to music of gossamer lightness and charm. Less surprising is the bright, animated whirl of ‘Tarantula’ which, at times, has a pianistic sparkle and clarity. Meijer is always in full command of her instrument – a Lyon & Healy Style 23 – and makes light of the music’s more fiendish passages. But it’s not just about technique, there’s a thoroughly engaging musical personality at work here, and that makes for an even more satisfying and rounded recital.
Creepy crawlies also feature in Patterson’s companion piece Bugs, written for Mumbai-born harpist Skaila Kanga. There’s a jazzy insouciance to ‘Late Night ANT-ics!’, Meijer inflecting the rhythms very well indeed. The slower, more reflective music of ‘The Lonely Locust’ has a celesta-like tinkle in the upper reaches, the silvery sounds especially tangible on the disc’s Super Audio layer. That said, the recording is splendid in its Red Book guise as well, putting most CDs to shame in terms of tonal range and fine detail. Just sample the opening flourish to ‘Mosquito Massacre’, where Meijer allows the notes to linger and decay into inky silence. The buzzing/droning effects are very cleverly done, and the sudden swat – achieved by striking the soundboard – certainly made me jump. All good fun, and played with obvious good humour.
In his liner-notes Heg explains how the American composer Garrett Byrnes’ Visions in Twilight was presented to Meijer to play in the third round of the USA International Harp Competition in 2004. The jury was so impressed by her performance that they awarded her two extra prizes. It may be a somewhat gnomic piece, with short phrases and spiky contours, but it’s by no means an ungrateful one to listen to. Even those big, swirling outbursts can’t disguise the music’s inherent warmth and variety. Once again the range of techniques on display is simply astonishing, the quietest passages captured with the utmost care. Indeed, even if Meijer’s playing were merely average this recording would still be in a class of its own.
And while the Byrnes piece meanders somewhat it’s a measure of Meijer’s skill – and the composer’s inventiveness – that it never palls. Ditto Korean composer Isang Yun’s In Balance, played here with admirable poise and refinement. The fan-like sweeps of sound are particularly alluring, the textures shot through with bright sparks of colour. Engagingly enigmatic, this comes as a welcome foil to the lightness and humour of the Patterson pieces. As does the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s Stanza II for harp and tape. Indeed, if you’re bracing yourself for a piece of 1970s tat you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The recording is very atmospheric indeed, the natural and artificial sounds blending and contrasting to great effect. Even those who are normally allergic to the avant-garde should find something to enjoy in this most accessible piece.
I was so taken with this disc that I promptly went out and bought Meijer’s earlier recording, Divertissements (CCS SA 28908). That, too, is a pleasure from start to finish, but really Visions is in another league entirely. Channel’s solid production values – reflected in the high standard of its artwork, liner-notes and general presentation – would be sorely missed if downloads and DIY documentation become the norm.
A must-have for harp aficionados and audio buffs alike.