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Paul LEWIS (b. 1943)
Songs of Israel, for harp and string quintet [18:46]
Memories of Amboise, for solo harp (2020) [9:09]
Concerto Romantico, for harp and strings (2020) [26:44]
Rachel Talitman (harp)
Israel Strings Ensemble/Doron Salomon
Recording details not supplied.
HARP & COMPANY CD5050-46 [54:39]

In the composer’s brief biography in the insert, we read: “At the heart of [Paul Lewis’s] output is his favourite instrument, the harp, for which he has produced an extensive catalogue of solo, chamber and concertante works, culminating in the concerto recorded here.” Harpist Rachel Talitman has an equally prolific recording career. Lewis notes that this is “her sixtieth album – surely a unique achievement for a harpist”.

I was a little disappointed with the Songs of Israel. One is always reminded of Constant Lambert’s dictum: the only thing that can be done with a folk song is to play it again – louder. And that applies to Scottish, Irish, Hungarian or Hebrew exemplars. To be fair, Lewis has tried to avoid Lambert’s warning. The opening movement, Shalom Chaverim Fantasia, takes a traditional song of farewell to old friends, and amends and transforms it in a variety of subtle ways. Equally transformative is the “rumba-fication” of Hava Nagila, a 19th century melody of Ukrainian origin put here through its paces. The composer explains that the final movement presents a tune of his own devising, Mevo Hama Nocturne. It is an elegy to his wife’s aunt Helen Corran. Despite Lewis’s skillful manipulation of these folk tunes, there is always a danger of falling into a pastiche of Fiddler on the Roof. Whether this fear is justified or not, the listener will decide. Despite my concerns, the result is often magical and quite lovely.

I liked Memories of Amboise for harp solo best. It was inspired by Paul Lewis’s several visits to this beautiful Loire Valley town since 1978. The music is dedicated to the four ladies who offered hospitality at Le Cheval Blanc hotel (still there). Back in the day, the proprietress, Teresa, was a Spanish lady whose “animated gestures of a flamenco dancer quite disarmed” the composer. He began writing this work on his arrival back in England. Wistfully, he remarks that this lady moved away from Amboise, possibly unaware of the music she inspired. This first piece, Au Cheval Blanc, is full of Iberian rather than Gallic tropes. Both flamenco dancing and sultry southern nights seem to dominate. It is a wonderful Spanish tone poem. The second piece recalls La Patisserie Bigot (also still in business), Lewis’s favourite Salon de The in the town. He was lucky enough to know all three of the Bigot family matriarchs who ran the premises. The music here is gentle, thoughtful and ultimately timeless, as befits the longevity of the family concern. The music was completed in 2020, at the request of the present soloist.

The Concerto Romantico is equally enjoyable. It has its basis in an unwritten film score. The movie was to have been a wartime story about a man and woman who meet briefly in a German concentration camp and fall in love. The plot revolved round their rediscovery of each other after the war, and the enduring nature of their love. I understand that the film was never made. However, on the strength of a possible contract, Lewis had already devised the main theme. This was later re-used in a series of romantic variations for a proposed CD. This project also never came to pass. Rachel Talitman asked Lewis for a concerto that would have a similar effect as his well-loved Rosa Mundi for string orchestra – one of the most beautiful string orchestra works by any composer, ever! Lewis obliged with this four-movement concerto completed in February 2020. The original love theme, written back in the 1990, heard in the first and last movements, provides a satisfying cyclical structure. The second is the most challenging section: a blues and jazz theme is heard, with several interruptions. The “scherzo” is a moto perpetuo that balances anger, wistfulness and nervous energy. In other words, life carrying on as “normal”. Naturally, the concerto comes to a happy conclusion, with lovers reunited in “quiet contentment.” Never mind its deeply emotional programme of love lost and found, this remarkable concerto can be listened to as absolute music.

Now for the liner notes. Paul Lewis’s commentary on all three works is ideal. There is lots of relevant background information, and a brief biography of the composer and the conductor. For some reason, nothing is written about the harp soloist. (The font is quite small, so a downloadable PDF file would have been of value but none is available at the Harp & Company CD webpage.) The recording dates and venues are not given. The composition dates are absent from the track listing, although to be fair, the text does place two of the pieces in 2020. There are photos of the composer and the conductor, and a very indistinct snap of the soloist hidden behind the harp strings. The evocative painting used on the CD cover is not acknowledged.

This is a most enjoyable recital. My one caveat is that it is best listened to one piece at a time. For harp enthusiasts, it is a valuable addition to their collection. The music is always approachable, with nothing too challenging. Rachel Talitman’s playing sounds to my ear like sheer perfection. The band make a valuable contribution in supporting the soloist.

John France

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