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music that will be new to most people

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Belle Époque
Henriette RENIÉ (1875-1956)
Concerto in C minor for harp and orchestra [23:39]
Théodore DUBOIS (1837-1924)
Fantaisie for harp and orchestra [14:57]
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Concertstück for harp and orchestra [14:04]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Morceau de concert for harp and orchestra [13:03]
Emmanuel Ceysson (harp)
Orchestre Régional Avignon Provence/Samuel Jean
rec. September 2014, Auditorium du Grand-Avignon, Le Pontet, France
NAÏVE V5419 [65:57]

This disc captures a series of French works for harp and orchestra, dating from the first two decades of the twentieth century, the time we now know as France’s Belle Époque. It’s an effective disc from a musician, Emmanuel Ceysoon, who clearly believes in this music.

Henriette Renié’s Concerto spins a delicate sound world, full of refinement and other Gallic musical qualities, such as being perhaps a little too knowing. There is a reflexive symmetry to the music that is satisfying, if hardly ground-breaking, and the interplay between harp and orchestra is very pleasant on the ear. The slow movement is limpid and elegant; the scherzo is graceful, almost balletic; and the finale swirls with a touch more drama, with the declamatory feel of an aria in places. Dubois' Fantaisie is, for me, a more instantly appealing piece. It has a carefree swing to its main theme that is most winning and the interplay of harp and orchestra is very skilfully managed. The harp is given the space to set out its themes with directness and clarity, but it also ripples against the orchestral backdrop very alluringly.

Pierné’s Concertstück has a very atmospheric, “once-upon-a-time” opening with voluminous arpeggios and delicately drawn themes. It then features a beautifully romantic, broad main melody which is worked out in a way that is lush and luxuriant, though the ending is a little peremptory. Saint-Saëns may be the most famous composer on the disc, but his Morceau de Concert is pretty conventional in comparison to the others on the disc. It’s beautiful, though! The first major theme is wistful and evocative, almost like a tune by Vaughan Williams with its folky feel and wind orchestration, and before the upbeat, if slightly understated finale, the sparky Scherzo section really plays to the harp’s filigree strengths.

It’s played very well, both by the virtuoso soloist and the Avignon orchestra. However, the disc doesn’t altogether solve the notoriously difficult problem with recording harp and orchestra: namely that of balance. To my ears, the recording places so much emphasis on the harp that the orchestral balance suffers: repeatedly, the harp sounds too pronounced and forward, while the orchestra sounds a little small, if not actually overtly recessed. It doesn’t help that the acoustic is a little dry, too. I guess it solves the problem of the harp being drowned, but it creates new ones by being so very different to what you might expect in the concert hall. Still, you tune in to it, and I guess we should be grateful for the chance to hear the inner details of works like these in a way we would seldom get the chance to do.

Simon Thompson



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