“20th Century Harp Sonatas” = PIERICK HOUDY: Sonate pour Harpe; ALFREDO CASELLA: Sonata per Arpa, Op. 68; NICOLAS FLAGELLO: Sonata for Harp; PAUL HINDEMITH: Sonate für Harfe; GERMAINE TAILLEFERRE: Sonate pour Harpe – Sarah Schuster Ericsson, harp – Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92106 [Distr. by Naxos], 68:56 ****1/2:
Harp recitals and recordings all too often feature a collection of salon pieces and/or short works for piano or some other instrument in transcription. Sarah Schuster Ericsson dares to be different here, offering instead substantial works from the heart of the twentieth-century harp repertoire. It seems like a breath of fresh air, though you will still probably want to take these pieces one or two at time. I don’t recommend sitting down to the whole program at once, but listening to contrasted pairs, such as Hindemith and Tailleferre or Houdy and Casella, is enjoyable indeed.
Of the five works on the bill of fare, my favorite is the Hindemith. This composer wrote sonatas for just about every instrument you can think of and got around to penning his Harp Sonata in Switzerland, just before immigrating to America on the eve of World War II. Like Casella, Hindemith had entered his final, neoclassical period, but both their works wear their classicism lightly. Hindemith stands the typical sonata format on its head, flanking a fast and lively middle movement with two more introspective ones, the first characterized by piquant dissonances and chord progressions. The somber last movement is based on a poem about a harpist whose last wish is to have his harp placed behind the church altar, where it miraculously plays of its own accord each sundown. Like most tone poems, you couldn’t tell all of this without a program, but the last movement is nonetheless evocative.
Casella wrote his lengthy Sonata for the same Italian harp virtuoso, Ciecilia Gatti-Aldrovandi, at the height of the war in 1943, and it seems to be tinged with the melancholy that Casella felt as the conflict dragged on and his health declined. Even the lively outer movements have a kind of hazy autumnal glow about them.
On the other hand, Tailleferre’s ten-minute Sonata is virtually unclouded, with a march-like first movement, a perpetuum mobile finale, and a Lento middle movement that sounds like a troubadour’s song, complete with strummed accompaniment.
Nicolas Flagello’s Sonata is in some ways the most surprising. The first movement is in his typically fluid neoromantic style, but the last two sound more French than American. The second movement reminds me of Satie’s dreamy Gymnopédies, while the last is an agile dance with wide-open chords that sound like Copland channeling Debussy and Ravel.
Though it’s said to be a crowd pleaser, Pierick Houdy’s Sonata is the least interesting to me. The outer movements sound merely busy and somewhat empty, but even here all is not lost: the central Lento has a lovely simplicity about it, with its bell-like chords and slowly expanding musical argument.
Harpist Sarah Ericsson has sterling credentials: she studied with the great Alice Chalifoux, played with the Baltimore and Boston Symphonies, then embarked on a solo performing and recording career that has netted her a Grammy nomination. On the evidence of the current disc, there is nothing she can’t do superlatively well. Her technique is unimpeachable, and she produces a strong firm tone that’s an absolute necessity in the big works she essays here. The recording, made at George Lucas’s Skywalker Sound in Marin County, is up to Dorian’s usual high standards. Strongly recommended, even to those who normally shy away from harp recitals; it’s that good.
— Lee Passarella