Discs with music for harp don't often land on my desk. The repertoire for the instrument is not that large and many pieces remain to be discovered. In European 'classical' music the harp’s appeal different by time and country. In the 16th and 17th centuries it played quite an important role in musical life in Spain and Italy. In Spain it was often used to accompany a singer in solo songs, whereas in Italy it was used as a basso continuo in dramatic works such as operas and oratorios. Composers also wrote solo pieces for the harp. However, in these different roles the harp was mostly interchangeable with keyboard and plucked instruments. Various collections of music were printed in which these options were presented as alternatives. It was with the further development of the harp around 1700 that a more independent repertoire came into existence.
In the period of the late baroque - roughly speaking the first third of the 18th century - the harp barely played any role across Europe. There is no hint of its use in Bach's oeuvre, for instance. Even Telemann and Vivaldi, who composed for almost any instrument in vogue at the time, wrote nothing for it. The harp experienced great popularity in France in the second half of the 18th century. Marie-Antoinette was an avid player, and in her salons music for harp, sometimes in combination with other instruments, was often performed.
Two people played a key role in the development and popularisation of the harp. The first was Sébastien Érard (1752-1831) who replaced hooks with forks. Érard built more solid harps with more reliable actions. The second person was Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz, born in Bohemia, and for a number of years harpist in the Esterházy orchestra under Haydn. In 1777 he arrived in Paris where he met Érard. He was considered the most brilliant harpist of his time. Another Bohemian-born composer stayed in Paris for while: Jan Ladislav Dussek. He was first and foremost a keyboard player but also played the harp. In Paris he moved in the highest circles and became acquainted with Marie Antoinette. Some of his music for harp was written during his time in France.
The music on the present disc is from this period - the classical era - to the early romantic period. Masumi Nagasawa is a specialist on historical harps and here plays a single-action harp by François-Joseph Naderman, built in 1815. The earliest concerto is the Premier concert op. 25 by Francesco Petrini. He was the son of the harpist with that name - Christian name unknown - who was a member of Frederick the Great's chapel and for whom Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed his only work for the harp. He went to Paris and made his first appearance at the Concert Spirituel in 1770. He also started to publish his own compositions for harp. The Concerto op. 25 dates from 1786 and is in three movements. The first is as long as the two other movements put together. The harp here plays the role which the keyboard had in concertos of that time: it acts as a solo instrument, but also takes the bass role in the tutti episodes. The first movement includes a written-out cadenza which Ms Nagasawa plays here, and which gives some idea of the kind of cadenzas played at the time. Despite the harp’s growing ascendancy there was still some music written which could be played either on the harp or the keyboard, for instance by Dussek. In her liner-notes Masumi Nagasawa compares Petrini's concerto with the famous concerto for flute and harp by Mozart and observes a clear difference. "The figures, patterns, chords and passagework in Petrini's lie comfortably in the hands of a harpist as opposed to Mozart's, which seem to be written by a keyboard player".
The next composer is Daniel Steibelt, born, like Petrini, in Berlin. His father was in the Prussian army and was a maker of harpsichords. He studied with Johann Philipp Kirnberger and then left home in order to avoid being forced to join the Prussian army by his father. He worked as a travelling keyboard virtuoso, and made his appearance in places like Munich and Hanover and then settled in Paris. He performed there but also in London, and composed his first opera. Around 1800 he travelled across Europe and gave many concerts. At the same time he was active as a composer. His output is considerable and includes music for the stage, orchestral and chamber music and a large quantity of pieces for the keyboard and the harp. The Concerto in E flat is his only harp concerto. Ms Nagasawa writes that it is in the style of his keyboard concertos. I am sure she is right, but I have to take her word for it as I have never heard any of these concertos. Steibelt is one of the many forgotten composers from the late-classical/early-romantic period. For the first movement Steibelt made use of his ballet Le retour de Zephyre which was well received. The orchestra is considerably larger than in Petrini's concerto, with pairs of flutes, oboes, horns and bassoons in addition to the strings.
Martin-Pierre d'Alvimare was a harpist by profession. He was from a wealthy family and only survived the Revolution by hiding his true identity. He joined the Opéra as harpist in 1800 and became a member of Napoleon's private orchestra in 1806. As a composer he concentrated on the writing of songs. His output is rather small and includes just two works with orchestra. The Concerto in c minor, op. 30 is called the "deuxième concert". The first concerto was the Symphonie concertante for harp and horn which dates from 1798. The orchestra is again larger than in Steibelt's concerto and includes a pair of clarinets and timpani. The opening of the first movement is quite dramatic with some chords for the full orchestra. These are repeated a couple of times after episodes taken by various solo instruments but supported by strings. Masumi Nagasawa plays a cadenza of her own which reflects the dramatic character of the opening statement. The role of the harp is confined to that of a solo instrument; it doesn't participate in the tutti. As in all three concertos the last movement is a rondo; it opens with a solo for the harp.
The three composers on this disc are all unknown quantities, and that makes this disc a most welcome addition to the discography. Ms Nagasawa states that one of the reasons that their music is forgotten has to do with the further development of the harp. The modern harp with its many technical possibilities may make the music written for older instruments rather superficial and uninteresting. This only underlines the importance of using of period instruments. I can imagine that if this music were to be played on a modern instrument one wouldn't get a true impression of its qualities. The harp played here is perfectly suited to this repertoire, although maybe an older instrument would have been preferable for the Petrini. Ms Nagasawa delivers technically impressive and musically inspired interpretations. I am less enthusiastic about the orchestra whose playing I sometimes found rather dull, dynamically a bit flat and not very colourful.
Even so, this disc deserves a positive reception because of the quality of the music and the performances by Masumi Nagasawa on a beautiful historical harp.
Johan van Veen