“Belle Epoque” French music for harp and orchestra – Emmanuel Ceysson, harp/ Orch. Régional Avignon Provence – Naïve

Soothing music for harp and orchestra from French composers, performed by Emmanuel Ceysson.

“Belle Epoque” French music for harp and orchestra – Emmanuel Ceysson, harp/ Orchestre Régional Avignon Provence – Naïve V5419, 65:54 [7/31/15] (Distr. by Naxos) *****:

The turn of the last century truly was a “beautiful era” for music in France. So this disc of harp music composed around that time is appropriately named. The Paris Conservatoire was the focal point for much of the musical pedagogy and creativity. It was there that the harp prodigy Henriette Renié (1875 – 1956) enrolled at ten years of age, and began lessons with the man, Alphonse Hasselmans, of whom she had said after hearing him play a concert of harp music, “That man is going to be my harp teacher.” She was five years old at the time! She became a legendary performer, composer and teacher on her instrument.

Her Concerto in C minor (1901) opens this disc. The first movement Allegro risoluto shows the harp in full partnership with the orchestra. The second movement is a hymn-like Adagio, and the third, a Scherzo, is a delightful frolic with a pastoral interlude. The last movement Final continues Renié’s penchant for using the harp’s lower register, unlike her contemporaries, to contribute substance to her fine melodies. Renié never married, but devoted herself to her family and her students (including Marcel Grandjany and Harpo Marx). She was the first female permitted to teach advanced students at the Conservatoire, and she wrote a two-volume “Harp Method” text still in use today.

Another of Renié’s teachers, Théodore Dubois (1837 – 1924) is represented next on this disc with his Fantasie pour harpe et orchestra. The piece was inspired by Renié’s Concerto and premiered by Renié in 1903 with the conductor Camille Chevillard and his Lamoureux Orchestra, the same group who had premiered Renié’s Concerto at the urging of Dubois, Renié’s teacher and friend. He was Director of the Paris Conservatoire from 1896 until 1905, resigning two months before the infamous incident wherein Maurice Ravel was denied the prestigious Prix de Rome for political reasons: nevertheless Dubois was implicated. The Fantasie contains masterful and classic writing for the harp – a simple but enjoyable work.

The next composer is Gabriel Pierné (1863 – 1937). He was born in the Lorraine region of France, just before the Germans annexed it as spoils of the Franco-Prussian War (1870). As a result his family moved to Paris, and he too soon enrolled in the Conservatoire. Another prodigy, he won first prizes in organ performance (at 16), harmony (at 17), counterpoint (at 18), and the exalted Prix de Rome (at 19) for his cantata Edith. He succeeded César Franck as organist at St. Clothilde Church in Paris in 1890 and stayed for eight years. He turned to conducting, becoming the principal conductor of the Concerts Colonne in 1903 and remaining until 1933. The piece on this disc, the Concertstuck pour harpe et orchestra Opus 39, is in three linked movements, and displays Pierné’s mastery of orchestration, and the virtuosic techniques that Renié’s Concerto had introduced two years earlier. The title indicates his links to both Germany and France.

Finally, the best-known composer on the recording, and the best-known harp piece. It is Camille Saint-Saën’ s Morceau de concert pour harpe et orchestra. I have a couple of discs on which it is anthologized. His life ran from 1835 to 1921 and he filled it mostly with composing, and in every 19th century musical genre. He began piano lessons at age three and by ten played a Beethoven and Mozart concerto in the Salle Pleyel. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 13 and won many prizes, but not the Prix de Rome. He befriended many of the leading composers, and Berlioz said of Saint-Saëns shortly after they met “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.” He won the post of organist at the prestigious Madeleine Church at 22 and stayed for twenty years. Franz Liszt heard him improvising there and hailed Saint-Saëns “the greatest organist in the world”. This Morceau, written in 1918, three years before he died, is in four linked but contrasting movements, with marvelous melodies throughout.

The young French harpist Emmanuel Ceysson is outstanding as soloist with the Orchestre Régional Avignon Provence on this disc. He was signed by the Naïve label in January 2012 and this is his tenth recording, his second for Naïve. He became principal harpist at the Paris Opera in 2006 and last year, just after this album was released, he won the audition for principal at the Metropolitan Opera. His movie-star good looks make for great Facebook postings and videos. The Avignon Orchestra is a regional ensemble, engaged in concerts of old and new music, and in touring around France and the world. It’s led here by Samuel Jean, their Principal Guest Conductor for the last three years. Recording venue was a concert hall in Avignon. Hannelore Quittet produced, edited and mixed this album for Naive – and the sound is marvelous. Notes are in French and English (translation) and are very good.

This disc is a most pleasing combination of classic French music of a century ago, and the hottest young harpist around. Highly recommended!

—Paul Kennedy

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