Chertok, Watkin, Maros, Britten, Mathias: Nocturne, Harp Suite from 1948 to 1988


  • Artist(s): Anna Castellari
  • Composer(s): Benjamin Britten, David Watkins, Pearl Chertok, Rudolf Maros, William Mathias
  • EAN Code: 7.46160913117
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Harp
  • Period: Modern
  • Publication year: 2021
SKU: C00480-2 Category:

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The name “suite”, employed for indicating a musical genre, dates back to the early Baroque era; however, the concept behind it is – one might say – as old as music itself. A suite is a series of pieces, usually of moderate length, and originally characterized by dance rhythms; indeed, in its most codified form, typical for the Baroque age, there were specific requirements concerning the type and positioning of some required dances. Later, when the suite began to be associated with a Baroque style which was no more fashionable, the genre itself remained in use, although in smaller numbers. After the Baroque era, to write a suite meant to establish a meaningful connection with the Baroque – be it as a homage, as an ironic reference, as an aesthetic ideal, as a nostalgic gaze on the past. In the Romantic era we find many suites “in disguise”: arguably, many of Schumann’s piano cycles rightfully belong in this genre. With the Neo-Baroque and Neo-Classicist waves of the twentieth century, the suite became once more fashionable, and notable examples of this genre are found in the repertoire of most instruments and ensemble. And the harp is no exception.
Indeed, if the idea of suite is as old as music, the harp as an instrument is only slightly younger, or possibly coeval. It is by no means absurd to imagine gatherings of people in the mists of time, dancing to the sound of the harp and probably of percussion instruments. And here is an important point. Dance is bound to rhythm; traditionally, the most attractive dances in all cultures are those characterized by a strong marking of the rhythmical impulses. However, the harp has frequently been conceived as a poetic instrument, suited for dreamy suggestions and sweet reveries. So, how is the harp suite in the twentieth century to be conceived? How will it sound?
This Da Vinci Classics album provides us with a welcome opportunity to answer these questions in a very complete fashion. It offers us an overview of different styles, different composers and different concepts of the harp suite. They range from a refined homage to the past with which the suite was frequently identified (as in Britten) to innovative explorations of sounds and styles which are not typically associated with the harp (as in Chertok); from works in which the dance influences are more evident to others in which the term “suite” seems simply to indicate a series of short movements; from works written by professional harpists, and thus frequently displaying the full gamut of the harp’s techniques, to works composed by musicians who did not have firsthand experience of playing the harp, but still (or perhaps for this reason) were able to use the genre of the suite in order to advance the harp’s language. Moreover, all of the suites recorded here contain a movement titled Nocturne, perhaps demonstrating the tight connection between harp and nocturnal reverie.
Pearl Chertok (1918-1981) belongs in the ranks of those who dedicated their entire life to the harp. Her early education had been marked by pronounced artistic interests, including dancing and playing the piano and the flute. She was admitted to the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where she was taught the harp by one of the legendary harpists of the era, Carlos Salzedo. Her brilliant performing career took place mainly in the New York orchestras, and specifically in the CBS Television Orchestra. The particular vocation of this ensemble possibly determined – or at least fostered – Chertok’s open-mindedness as concerns musical genres and styles. Playing in a TV orchestra meant to be exposed to a variety of different ways to conceive music: from the “great classical tradition”, with which Chertok was well acquainted, to lighter genres and musical styles. These flexible boundaries are therefore observable in Chertok’s own works as a composer, and particularly in her most celebrated work, the Around the Clock Suite recorded here. Thanks to Chertok’s broad view of music and musical styles, the harp was encouraged to leave its ivory tower, the realm of unearthly beauty and refinement; in one of Chertok’s own recordings, suggestively titled Strings of Pearl, she plays accompanied by a bongo player, thus providing the harp with the rhythmical pulse it could otherwise lack.
Still, Chertok tried to turn her heavenly instrument into something earthlier, in terms of humour, irony, but also in the exquisitely musical elements of rhythm and beat. These efforts are beautifully exemplified in the Around the Clock Suite, written in 1948. Here, the suite is traditionally conceived as a series of dances, but the Minuets and Pavanes of the Baroque suite are transformed into embodiments of the frenzied and lively musical scene of post-War New York, with its nightclubs and their big bands. In Ten Past Two we listen to the regular ticktock of the clock; in the composer’s words, it is “early afternoon and you walk along the avenue. You look in the shop windows and are fascinated by the glitter and the new styles. You stop at one window and a gown – shimmering with sequins – makes you tingle with delight. Then you walk again – taking in the displays made just for you”. In Beige Nocturne the composer allows some reminiscences of the Impressionist style to resurface; she depicts a Debussy-like Clair de lune with vaguely exotic features. The best-known movement of the suite, however, is the hilarious Harpicide at midnight, a “horror” piece in which ghostly apparitions create a climate of humorous terror, on a ragtime rhythm, setting the stage for the “harpicide”. In The Morning After we are left to contemplate the remains, with a bittersweet smile.
By way of contrast, David Watkins’ Petite Suite adheres more faithfully to the traditional role of the harp. Watkins is another professional harpist who performed extensively as an orchestra musician, most notably in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, when he played with the likes of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, accompanying dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. Along with his activity as a performer, Watkins has been very productive as a teacher and as a composer, and his Petite Suite, recorded here, represented a landmark in his career and professional activity. Having been awarded first prize in the 1961 International Competition for Harp Compositions in the United States of America, on behalf of the Northern Californian Harpists Association, the piece’s success encouraged Watkins to devote his creative energies to composition. Similar to Around the Clock, but with a very different musical style, the suite leads us through various moments of the day and of the night. Prelude depicts an early morning by the river Seine. The weather is fine, and “the surface of the water is only disturbed by swallows, dragonflies and a small boat”; the idyllic landscape is complemented by the quiet grazing of cows in the meadows and by the “joyous cries of swallows”. In Nocturne, the night is no more a peaceful harbour of serenity; rather, it is filled with the premonition of a storm. “The countryside at Andé lies under the low and heavy clouds of a summer night”, but, at the moment, no thunderclaps are heard: the only sound is that of the crickets, whilst a sudden break in the clouds reveals the shining firmament above them. Finally, Fire Dance is a homage to the ritual dances of South America, in which the harp plays a crucial role. Indeed, this piece was inspired by the sound of the small harp typical of Paraguay, which, once more, demonstrates the harp’s capability to mark the rhythmical impulses in a powerful fashion.
Among Watkins’ professional successes, a very suggestive performance took place in the early 1980s, when he played in a recital of poetry and music along with Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly), on the occasion of the official engagement of Prince Charles with Diana Spencer. For their wedding, in 1981, the music of another composer recorded here was employed: William Mathias wrote the anthem Let the people praise Thee O God, one of his most celebrated works.
Mathias was in fact famous for his church music, which however did not exhaust his creative vein. Mathias, a Welsh musician, had been a child prodigy; he completed his musical education in London, but later came back to his Welsh homeland to teach and compose for decades, until his premature death at 57. His Santa Fe Suite was commissioned by Caryl Thomas, one of the greatest living harpists and the first British prizewinner at the International Harp Contest in Israel. The work’s commission was also supported by the Arts Council of Wales, and Thomas premiered it in the prestigious venue of London’s Wigmore Hall on September 28th, 1988. In counterpoint with the Fire Dance closing Watkins’ Petite Suite, here the last piece is a Sun Dance; still, the descriptive dimension is very pronounced here too. This multicoloured and fascinating piece was inspired by the composer’s visit to Santa Fe and portrays vividly the atmospheres and rhythms of Latin American music.
A homage to Wales is also found in the well-known Suite for Harp by Benjamin Britten, who wrote it for celebrated harpist Osian Ellis, who premiered it during the 1969 Aldenburgh Festival. In the composer’s words, the piece is reminiscent of “18th century harp writing, but somehow it came out that way”. The suite opens with a “classical Overture, with dotted rhythms and trumpet chords”, followed by a “Toccata, a rondo busy with quavers and semiquavers, with much crossing of parts”; then comes yet another “Nocturne, a clear tune with increasing ornamentation over a low, chordal ground”, followed by a Fugue in the form of “a brief scherzo in three voices”. It is in the last piece that the Welsh suggestions surface, however; the Hymn (“St. Denio”) is a “Welsh tune”, intended as “a compliment to the dedicatee” and ornated by “five variants”, as the composer described it.
A decidedly different style is found in Rudolf Maros’ Suite for Harp. A former pupil of Kodály, who deeply influenced him, Maros is among the most interesting Hungarian composers of the twentieth century. His interest in folk music and tunes grew to incorporate suggestions from the Western avantgardes, and the variety of these influences is observable in his Suite. Here, pentatonic and modal suggestions are combined with a thorough knowledge of harp technique, which contrasts the dreamy fascination of still another Nocturne with the brilliancy of the Toccata, the sad lullaby of the Naenia with the delightful pace of the Rondo.
Together, these suites form a suite of their own: a fascinating itinerary through the musical gestures and styles of harp music in the twentieth century, and a demonstration of the potential that this ages-old instrument still possesses.

Liner Notes © Chiara Bertoglio


Graduated in Harp Performance with 9/10 at Conservatorio “Bruno Maderna” in Cesena. Winner of international competitions and awards as “Classical Music La VilaVella Competiton”, “Premio Crescendo” and “Flores Frezzotti Scholarship”. With an intensive career as soloist, she has performed Harp Masterpieces as Debussy Danses Sacreé et Profane and Ravel Introduction et Allegro with European Chamber Orchestra & Bazzini Consort, and Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini of Pesaro.

She has performed and recorded the Word Premier of “Concerto for flute, harp, two percussions and 15 strings” of Giorgio Gaslini in the presence of the Composer. Honored to make Lurana Lubello’s Salzedo Lyon & Healy Harp to be heard.


Benjamin Britten (b Lowestoft, 22 Nov 1913; d Aldeburgh, 4 Dec 1976). English composer, conductor and pianist. He and his contemporary Michael Tippett are among several pairs of composers who dominated English art music in the 20th century. Of their music, Britten’s early on achieved, and has maintained, wider international circulation. An exceedingly practical and resourceful musician, Britten worked with increasing determination to recreate the role of leading national composer held during much of his own life by Vaughan Williams, from whom he consciously distanced himself. Notable among his musical and professional achievements are the revival of English opera, initiated by the success of Peter Grimes in 1945; the building of institutions to ensure the continuing viability of musical drama; and outreach to a wider audience, particularly children, in an effort to increase national musical literacy and awareness. Equally important in this was his remaining accessible as a composer, rejecting the modernist ideology of evolution towards a ‘necessary’ obscurity and developing a distinctive tonal language that allowed amateurs and professionals alike to love his work and to enjoy performing and listening to it. Above all, he imbued his works with his own personal concerns, some of them hidden, principally those having to do with his love of men and boys, some more public, like his fiercely held pacifist beliefs, in ways that allowed people to sense the passion and conviction behind them even if unaware of their full implication. He also performed a fascinating, as well as problematic, assimilation of (or rapprochement with) the artistic spoils of the East, attempting an unusual integration of various non-Western musical traditions with his own increasingly linear style.

Rudolf Maros (b Stachy, Bohemia, 19 Jan 1917; d Budapest, 3 Aug 1982). Hungarian composer and teacher. He graduated from the teachers’ training college, in Győr in 1937 and studied with Kodály (composition) and Temesváry (viola) at the Budapest Academy of Music (1939–42), playing the viola during this period in a Budapest orchestra. In 1942 he took a teaching appointment at the secondary music school in Pécs, and in summer 1949 he studied composition in Alois Hába’s master class in Prague. That year he was appointed to the staff of the Budapest Academy, where he teaches wind chamber music, theory and orchestration. He attended several Darmstadt summer courses from 1959, and in 1971 he went to West Berlin on a fellowship.

The characteristic features of Maros’s early music, which was strongly influenced by Kodály, are simple formal patterns, diatonic harmonized melody and a folkloristic style. In the second half of the 1950s his music underwent a gradual change until in the orchestral Ricercare (1959) he produced his first 12-note serial piece. He soon moved away from strict serialism, building such works as the Cinque studi for orchestra (1960) on the manipulation of small motivic units defined by interval. From this he moved on to the sensitive exploitation of shifting and opposed colours, notably in the Eufonia series for orchestra (1963–5), in which 12-note clusters undergo subtle changes of timbre and octave placement. Rhythm here is quite fluid and there is almost no isolated melody; these aspects became subjects of interest again in Gemma (1968) and Monumentum (1969), the latter a powerful impression of the year 1945, with hope emerging from turmoil. Subsequent works reveal some integration of traditional elements into the style developed in the compositions of the 1960s; many of Maros’s works from all periods show a Bartókian delight in arch forms.

William Mathias (b Whitland, Carmarthenshire, 1 Nov 1934; d Menai Bridge, Anglesey, 29 July 1992). Welsh composer and pianist. He studied at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (BMus 1956) with Ian Parrott, among others, and at the RAM (scholarship winner, 1956), where his teachers included Lennox Berkeley (composition) and Katin (piano). From 1959 to 1968 he was a lecturer at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. He was elected a Fellow of the RAM in 1965 and the following year received the DMus from the University of Wales. Appointed to a senior lectureship at Edinburgh University in 1968, he returned to Wales on the death of his father in 1969. The following year he was appointed to a professorship at Bangor, a post he held until his retirement in 1987. He founded the North Wales Music Festival at St Asaph Cathedral in 1972 and continued to serve as its director until his death. His honours include the Bax Society composition prize (1968), appointment as CBE (1985) and an honorary doctorate from Westminster Choir College (1987). From 1990 to 1991 he served as president of the ISM.