This is a fascinating and enterprising selection of British works for solo harp which the talented harpist Keziah Thomas has compiled.
Pivotally central to the six works is ‘Crossing Waves’ by the saxophonist and composer Andy Scott, which Ms Thomas commissioned. It is inspired by the single-handed epic voyage undertaken by the intrepid rower Roz Savage across the Atlantic in 2005/6; she is the first woman to row single-handed across three oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. The three-movement work reflects the moods which one can only imagine, raw nerves and apprehension dominating the opening. Solitude and stillness are portrayed by a calm lyricism in the central movement’s attractive harmonic style, while the finale gradually builds up the excitement of successful achievement in a catchy rhythmic foot-tapping, happy conclusion.
Established composers Britten and Arnold are each represented by a five-movement Suite, both of them written for the 86 year-old Welsh harpist Osian Ellis, probably the most famous harpist on the British musical scene in the second half of the twentieth century. In both Suites, Keziah Thomas displays her formidable technique, achieving clean-cut clarity in the music’s articulation. In Britten’s Overture and the Nocturne there are dark moods lurking which emerge from and return to calmer waters, while the quixotic Toccata and the Scherzo’s Fugue provide lighter moments. Light and shade permeate the sounds and colours of the final Hymn, the Welsh tune St Denio (‘Immortal, Invisible, God only wise’), ‘a compliment to the dedicatee’ as Britten himself adds.
Arnold’s Suite shows traits of Ireland to which he moved from Cornwall in the 1970s. The opening Lament is imbued with conventional flourishes, the folk-like March is briskly attractive and leads without a break into a sublime Nocturne. The Scherzo bears its composer’s trademark rhythmic agitations peppered with glissandi
and discords followed by a Finale in which we hear the opening Lament returning us to more diatonic waters.
An unlikely inspiration for Sally Beamish’s Awuya
is the significant medical research into the tsetse fly-transmitted African sleeping sickness by Professor Keith Vickerman of Glasgow University. This institution commissioned the work to mark the Professor's retirement and his daughter Louise gave the first performance there on 1 January 1998. Various influences are brought to bear, namely African drumming (the body of the harp is struck), pentatonic music for the Central African harp and a lullaby sung by a tribe devastated by the disease in the 1940s to a child, whose name was Awuya. As the work progresses it gradually builds in optimism, as if the hope of a scientific breakthrough may be in the offing, the changing trypanosomes may be controlled and the disease conquered. This is a powerful work when given such a committed performance as here.
Huw Watkins received a commission from the 2006 Presteigne Festival for his four-movement Suite premiered by Sally Pryce. Like Britten’s Suite it shares movements with familiar titles and covers a variety of moods and styles, albeit each has a quiet ending. The work travels from a threatening opening March, via the demands of a fluid toccata to the serenity of a Lullaby and ends with a finger-snapping and perky, jazzy Gigue. Keziah Thomas ends the disc with her other commission, this time to mark the feel-good factor of Britain in 2012, the highlights of which were the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Summer Olympics. James Young produced a work for her which is witty, clever and highly attractive. Rule Britannia (with its back-of-the-box typo) is the basis for the theme and variation principle during which there is plenty of opportunity to explore the various effects a harp can produce. There's even an old-fashioned car horn (at 4:00) recalling the mute Harpo Marx’s means of communication as well as his wonderful, self-taught playing of the instrument which gave him his stage name.
This young concert harpist, Keziah Thomas, has done more than enough here to establish a reputation with this very fine debut solo disc and deserves to be heard the length and breadth of the land … and beyond, by ‘crossing waves’.
Britten discography & review index: Suite