Sunday 5 January 2014

Superbly played performances of works for harp by Debussy and André Caplet from Elizabeth Hainen on a new release from Avie Records

Whilst Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is one of France’s best known composers, his close friend, André Caplet (1878-1925) is far from well known.

A composer and conductor, Caplet is better known for his orchestration of a number of Debussy’s works. Born in Le Havre, he showed early talent as a violinist, joining the Le Havre Theatre Orchestra at the age of only twelve years. He later studied harmony, composition and piano at the Paris Conservatory, later studying conducting with Arthur Nikisch in Berlin. He won the 1901 Prix de Rome for his cantata Myrrha.

He was conductor of the Boston Opera Theatre, USA from 1910 to 1914 and conducted the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris and Lamoureax Orchestra. Gassing during the First World War led to his early death. His compositions include choral works, works for voice and orchestra, orchestral works, songs, instrumental music, chamber music and solo harp.

It is the work for solo harp, Deux Divertissements (1924) and one of his chamber works, Conte Fantastique (The Masque of Red Death)" d'après Poe pour harpe à pedales et quatour à cordes (1903/1928) that feature on a new release from Avie Records coupled with Debussy’s Danse Sacrée et danse profane, Petite Suite and Sonata for flute, viola and harp. Debussy’s Petite Suite is arranged here for solo harp by the performer on this recording, Elizabeth Hainen

Elizabeth Hainen has earned an international reputation as one of the world’s finest harpists. She has been solo harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1994 and has played under such conductors as Charles Dutoit, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Michael Tilson Thomas and Wolfgang Sawallish.

With Debussy’s Danse Sacrée et danse profane Elizabeth Hainen’s harp is nicely set within the orchestral sound stage in Danse Sacrée. Hainen captures Debussy’s often elusive sound world as does the IRIS Orchestra  under Michael Stern . There is some extremely beautiful playing with such sensitive touch. With Danse profane Hainen fits so well into the rhythmic sweep of the orchestral music in an intoxicating performance.

Debussy’s  Petite Suite opens with En bateau where Hainen draws so many colours and textures from her instrument in this attractive arrangement, beautifully French in atmosphere. There is a glittering Cortège with often an almost orchestral feel to the layers of sound. This is most fine playing indeed, wonderfully done. Menuet brings some exquisitely delicate playing, full of atmosphere and style in a tune that many will recognise and Ballet is an absolute delight, full of rhythmic precision, wonderfully played by this superb harpist, with again lovely textures and colours.

For Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp Elizabeth Hainen is joined by Jeffrey Khaner (flute) and Roberto Díaz (viola) where they prove to be a fine trio, drawing so much magical atmosphere in the Pastorale in all its guises with some lovely flute arabesques from Jeffrey Khaner. In Interlude these instrumentalists weave lovely sounds, all contributing such accomplished playing. Ensemble is spot on as they respond to each other with such precision and obvious empathy. The Finale brings fine playing from the Roberto Díaz in the opening of this brilliant and demanding finale.

After Debussy’s works we come to André Caplet starting with his Deux Divertissements. À la française in C opens with a wonderful flourish from Elizabeth Hainen. This is a lovely piece, superbly played by this harpist with such detail, clarity and charm, drawing colours and textures that lift the music. This is a great performance of some virtuosity. With À l’espagnole in E flat I thought, at the beginning, that Hainen was about to launch into a ‘boogie’, such was her rhythmic panache but the piece soon develops into a guitar like Iberian piece, full of Spanish atmosphere. Caplet gives the harpist so many opportunities to demonstrate the many aspects of the harp’s sounds. This is a tremendous piece, played with remarkable skill and accomplishment.

André Caplet – Conte fantastique (La masque de la mort rouge) draws on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and dates from 1908 when it appeared as Légende for chromatic harp and orchestra. In 1923, Caplet arranged the work for pedal harp or piano and string quartet with the title Conte fantastique.

Elizabeth Hainen and the IRIS Orchestra under Michael Stern play the version for harp and orchestra which has an atmospherically quiet opening before brilliant flourishes from the harp. The music develops into some dramatic, sweeping music where the harp becomes enmeshed into the orchestral sound. This work is very much a tone poem or symphonic study, but, nevertheless, allows many moments for the harpist to add to the overall texture and atmosphere of the piece. Caplet effectively illustrates the story with music of some brilliance. There are passages that allow the harp to take centre stage at various places before a chilling knock on the door, where the harpist knocks on the soundboard of her instrument, leads to a ghostly orchestral and harp passage before the music dances to an end.

These are superbly played performances that can be enthusiastically recommended. The recordings, whilst rather closely miked, are fine and detailed and there are informative booklet notes.

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