Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Harp rarities at “The Interludes”

David J Brown

Cristina Montes Mateo.
Self-portrait of
Louis Spohr.
The Spanish harpist Cristina Montes Mateo’s January recital in Classical Crossroads Inc.’s “The Interludes” series proved to be not only a fascinating tour of some 150 years of solo harp repertoire but also a mini-seminar on the instrument itself. After opening with Spohr’s 1807 Fantaisie in C minor Op.35, in which an affectingly lachrymose Adagio molto introduction leads to informal variations on an ear-catching little tune, full of half-smiles and shrugs (n.b.#1, to self: explore more Spohr), she briefly talked about the basic structure of her instrument. 

Jesús Guridi.
Then again, following the lilting “old dance” of Jesús Guridi’s Viejo Zortzico from 1949 (n.b.#2, to any reader: it’s well worth seeking out other works by Guridi – notably the Sinfonia Pirenaica), she went into more detail about both the functions of the harp’s seven pedals and the color-coding of its 47 strings to aid player navigation. 

The next two names on the composer roster were wholly unfamiliar; later online research made me reflect that probably nearly all instruments have their own coteries of composer-specialists who rarely if ever venture further. Thus you won’t, for example, see works in any other genre by the organ composer Flor Peeters decorating concert programs, and in checking out the Belgian Félix Godefroid (1818-1897) and Frenchman Marcel Grandjany (1891-1975), both proved to be harpists first, last, and all points between. 

Félix Godefroid.
The profusion of florid decoration in Godefroid’s Danse des Sylphes, composed in 1880, as well as its tripping main melody had, in addition to danceability, more than a touch of the bel canto aria about it, though I did feel that the piece had said all it had to say by about half-way through. The Rhapsodie by Grandjany, dating from 1921 and unsurprisingly somewhere downstream from Debussy harmonically – but none the worse for that – was more substantial, an extended meditation on a Gregorian chant, Salve festa dies.

Saint-Saens in 1893, the year he
wrote his Fantaisie for harp.
Ironically, the one truly great French composer in Ms. Monteo Mateo’s recital was Saint-Saëns, who was famously antipathetic to Debussy’s music (a dislike that was reciprocated), and who died in the year Grandjany wrote his Rhapsodie. Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie in A minor pour Harpe Op.95 was composed nearly three decades before (during one of his many stays in Algeria), though such was the length of his compositional career that it is very much a work of his maturity. Admittedly a minor chipping from the workbench of a master, it nonetheless effortlessly juggles and subtly varies across its nine-minute length no less than three memorable melodies – an easy-going waltz, a rhapsodic arioso, and what sounds a bit like but presumably isn’t a folk-tune. This work, for me, was definitely the highlight of the recital. 

The listed program concluded with two shorter items by 20th century Spanish composers: Apunte bético by Gerardo Gombau (1906-1972), who seems to be very little-known beyond his native country, and the thoroughly familiar “Spanish Dance No.1” from Manuel de Falla’s opera La Vida Breve, transcribed for the harp by Grandjany. Not content with this very full program for a nominally short afternoon recital, Ms. Monteo-Mateo had an encore ready. This shifted decisively north from the main French/Spanish axis to Russia, as tucked away in Prokofiev’s early 10 pieces for piano Op.12, is one item for piano or harp, the No.7 Prélude

It was the perfect conclusion to a recital in which even the slightest of these eight works was illuminated and made alive by Ms. Montes Mateo’s deliciously subtle and pointed playing (what is it about the sound of a harp that almost sends one into a trance?), as well as her illuminating discussion of the instrument itself, and her graceful stage presence. 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, January 20, 2018.
Photos: Cristina Montes Mateo: website; Spohr: Wikimedia Commons; Guridi: Eresbil; Godefroid: Marie-Alexandre Alophe; Saint-Saëns: Wikimedia Commons.

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