Marisa Robles, harp
The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
Iona Brown, conductor
The harp was originally considered as a folk instrument, but from a certain point on, it became one of the noblest instruments and a favourite at Court. Its presence in royal residences is very well documented, important composers wrote music for it and many royal figures were passionate about the instrument, as Queen Marie Antoinette of France, probably the most illustrious of these harp virtuosi, immortalized in a famous painting while playing her instrument.
Although the works collected in the present recording (conveniently entitled Harp Concertos) were not written specifically for a royal musician, their quality and refinement easily reminds of the most sophisticated audiences and the fine performance of harpist Marisa Robles and of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Iona Brown present the concertos and variations of the programme at their best.
The first work is Handel’s celebrated Harp Concerto in B flat major, op. 4, no. 6, performed for the first time on February 19, 1736, at the King’s Theater in London on the occasion of the Alexander’s Feast, together with an Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (HWV 75), the “Alexander’s Feast” Concerto grosso (HWV 318) and the Organ Concerto in G minor, op. 4, no. 1. The Harp Concerto is now performed more often in the organ version – an odd fact, explainable by its publication by John Walsh in 1738 as part of a collection of organ concertos, naturally re-arranged for that instrument.
It is difficult to figure out an instrument more dissimilar to the gentle harp than the grave and solemn organ and such a contrast in even greater after having listened to Robles’s performance. She and the orchestra perform Handel’s concerto conferring it a brilliant and joyous sound that excellently accomplishes to the double task of introducing amiably the listener into the elegant world of this recording and to give a hint of Baroque splendour.
Boïeldieu’s Harp Concerto in C was composed in the early years of the composer’s career (between 1800 and 1801), when he was not already established as an operatic composer and did not limit his repertoire to opera. Differently from Handel’s, this concerto has never lost its connection with the instrument for which it was written and actually is one of the most important works for harp in the repertoire. Due to this consideration, it is even more interesting to listen to Robles’s performance and, after that, it is necessary to compliment her for her achievement. The concerto is divided into three movements: the first is the liveliest, the second the most melancholic and the third is the progressive return to the original mood despite the persistence of the second. Robles describes this “journey” with remarkable skill and variety, stressing the different feelings without losing sight of her final aim.
Dittersdorf’s concerto is only one of the fine works of this now neglected composed, considered in his lifetime a pair of Haydn and Mozart. The Harp Concerto in A major (which is actually his own transcription of one of his five harpsichord concertos) echoes the melancholic side of Boieldieu’s composition, but Robles plays it giving prominence to the fact that the feelings it expresses are a little affected, while those of the previous work sounded natural despite the elaboration of the score.
Three sets of variations end the recording. The most effective are the thoughtful variations by Handel because the Mozart variations are not his most inspired work, if they have been really composed by him (the works is only attributed), while Beethoven’s are fine, but not at the same level of Handel’s. This said, Robles performs all three of them with the same passion and skill and it is recognizable a particular enthusiasm on her part, especially in the Mozart variations.
Harp Concertos is definitely a rich and precious recording, devoted to one of the most charming and noble instruments. I really think that, in this case, the term “noble” can be intended not only in the honorific sense, but also in the higher, spiritual one because it is rare to hear such beautiful music performed in a better way by a real talented and communicative performer.