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Moldau: The Romantic Solo Album
Track listing below review
Xavier de Maistre (harp)
rec. 2014, b-sharp studios, Berlin, Germany
SONY CLASSICS 88875 049042 [62:01]

Xavier de Maistre is youngish, good-looking, and plastered across the covers of his CDs. He records popular music for a major record label. In other words, he’s the kind of artist who makes a great target for snobby critics. Except for one problem: Xavier de Maistre is a great harpist, who deserves all the attention he gets. And this album, like all of his previous ones, is a total delight to hear.

A harpist in the Vienna Philharmonic for many years, de Maistre in fact claims to be the first Frenchman ever to join that vaunted orchestra. He also performed several concertos with them, even going on tour with the VPO as a soloist. And he has music-critic credibility for his recordings of less well-known repertoire, including a totally wonderful folk concerto by Basque composer Aita Madina (review) and a disc of obscure French concertos (review).

A quote from the second review I just cited is also relevant here: “opulent yet with no surrender to kitsch.” There’s no doubt that this disc is full of charming romantic repertoire and big hits, yet it’s most impressive for sheer craftsmanship and artistry. Take The Moldau, in an arrangement by Hans Trneček: there’s no way the harp can convey all that an orchestra does, so the arranger takes liberties, even rewriting a whole episode from scratch. It’s a great success. You’ll also be surprised by how well Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets” works on a solo harp.

There is one true original here: Ekaterina Walter-Kühne’s fantasy on Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. It’s a treat, leaning especially heavily on the big waltz-tune. This, like the Prokofiev excerpt, is a great place to point out Xavier de Maistre’s flair for the dramatic. And the gentle grace of the waltz is a reminder of his Viennese pedigree.

Most of the rest of the disc presents transcriptions of solo piano music. Dvorák’s American Suite is another work which I was skeptical would work on harp, but again I was proven wrong. Who did the transcription? The booklet doesn’t say. Could it be the performer himself? The equally anonymous Prokofiev arrangement is just as good, and somebody deserves credit for them. Ditto for Liszt’s Le rossignol, which was originally a transcription itself, of a Russian folk-song. Glinka’s Nocturne, meanwhile, sounds like it ought to be a Christmas carol.

I’m worried my review-speak is getting in the way of telling you just how much I enjoyed this album. Days after my most recent listen, the harp version of “Montagues and Capulets” is still getting stuck in my head. Xavier de Maistre’s interpretations are a consistent delight, and I’m especially taken with the way he alternates loud and soft versions of the Moldau theme. In a booklet note, de Maistre offers what sounds like an apology, saying that the sessions were recorded in conditions as close to live as possible, with no patch-ups for wrong notes. But where exactly are the wrong notes? Why apologize for these energetic, vibrant performances?

True, the booklet also has a glamour centerfold of de Maistre trying to look like Benedict Cumberbatch in costume for BBC’s Sherlock. But you know what? If you make great albums, you can do whatever you want. Xavier de Maistre makes great albums. He can do anything.

Brian Reinhart

Track listing

Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
The Moldau (arr. Trneček) [10:11]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Le Rossignol, after Alyabyev (arr. Renié) [4:51]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
From Romeo and Juliet: Aubade; Montagues and Capulets [6:17]
Anatoly LIADOV (1855-1914)
A Musical Snuffbox [2:01]
Ekaterina WALTER-KÜHNE (1870-1930)
Fantasy on Themes from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin [8:44]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy [2:14]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Oriental Dance [2:13]
Toccata [3:06]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Nocturne in E flat [4:25]
Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Suite in A, Op. 98, “American” [18:00]


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