“American Harp” = JOHN WILLIAMS: The Lanes of Limerick; HANNAH LASH: Stalk; LOWELL LIEBERMANN: Music for Harp, Op. 116; STEPHEN PAULUS: Berceuse; NORMAN DELLO JOIO: Bagatelles; JOHN CAGE: In a Landscape; ELLIOTT CARTER: Bariolage – Yolanda Kondonassis, harp – Azica ACD-71281, 57:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis has received acclaim from critics and CD buyers alike for her collections issued on the Telarc label. While her programs presented some music originally written for the harp (Carlos Salzeda is apparently a favorite, and there’s an all-Hovhaness album), a lot of what was on these discs were transcriptions: Chopin Preludes, opera arias, Satie’s ubiquitous Gymnopédies—that sort of thing. Now recording for Azica Records, Kondonassis has put together an ambitious program of works for harp by American composers in line with her expressed aim to present the harp as an instrument capable of more than the dreamy and the impressionistic. This makes for serious and attractive listening, and I applaud her choice.
There are two world-premiere recordings here—odd in the case of Stephen Paulus, whose work is widely represented on disc. Why did it take so long to get around to Paulus’ Berceuse, written in 1983? No matter, this piece, the only one by the composer for solo harp, rings the changes on the classic berceuse (lullaby) as purveyed by the likes of Fauré. It’s dreamy and pearly enough, but it also has a dark and moody cast to it, sprinkled with dissonant chords, dissolving in a series of quiet dissonances that take us from the bottom of the harp’s range to the top. The other world premiere is of Lowell Liebermann’s Music for Harp, written just last year for the American Harp Society’s fortieth annual conference. Liebermann wrote about his own piece that it manipulates “tonality, modality, octatonic and synthetic scales as well as atonal materials. . . in an exploration of the harp’s ability.” He goes on to say that the harp was “clearly designed with traditional tonality in mind” so that any attempt at harmonic complexities “would take a great deal of ingenuity on the composer’s part.” If that’s so, I don’t see Mr. Liebermann sweating over his work—at least the result is highly ear-appealing and idiomatic: Ars est celare artem (“It is real art to conceal art.”)
As you’d expect, that grand old man of American atonality, Elliott Carter, wouldn’t shy away from the challenge. For many listeners, his Bariolage will be the hardest piece to come to terms with since it seems to flout the notions that we have about the harp and what it’s capable of. Even the title presents an interpretive challenge. Merriam-Webster defines bariolage as “a special effect in violin playing obtained by playing in rapid alternation upon open and stopped strings.” This idea of repetition and alteration results in a work that seems obsessed with certain thematic fragments that do return in a variety of harmonic and figural guises. In the process, Bariolage throws a great many technical challenges at the harpist, who needs to shift from chords to glissandi, from strummed chords to stopped chords to pizzicato chords. Miss Kondonassis claims to have come to understand the structure and concept of the work. Maybe one would have to play it to understand all that; I’ve listened to Bariolage several times and haven’t gotten to the bottom of the piece though I find it intriguing, more appealing than some of Carter’s work, which often strikes me as too serious, too intense. (I think he should have taken a page out of his mentor Charles Ives’s book.) [Bravo! – me too…Ed.]
Another American avant-gardist is represented here, John Cage, but his relatively early (1948) In a Landscape is limpid, hypnotically repetitious, very Far Eastern, and sounds like the work of an American Takemitsu.
The most traditional-sounding pieces here are those by John Williams (based on the music from the film Angela’s Ashes) and Norman Dello Joio, whose Bagatelles was commissioned for a harp competition sponsored by the Hartt School of Music and the University of Hartford. Both pieces are atmospheric—dreamy—in the way usually associated with the harp, though Dello Joio’s second Bagatelle is a bouncy, bounding affair that sounds like it might have been written by one of Les six. It adds wanted variety to the mix.
So this is, then, a varied and appealing look at how a number of American composers have taken up the challenge of writing for an instrument that often receives merely clichéd treatment. The music is not always riveting, but Kondonassis’ playing mostly is, whether in the elegant and spidery sounds that Liebermann spins or in the hard-edged atonality of the Carter. Bright, airy recorded sound from Clonick Hall at Oberlin Conservatory, where Kondonassis chairs the harp department.