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Hidden Treasures: Harp Sonatas in Exile (1939 – 1972)


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    Few instruments can compare with the harp in terms of history and repertoire. It is doubtlessly one of the oldest instruments in human history; an instrument which is found throughout a range of cultures, and which bridges a variety of historical, geographical and social gaps. Yet, it has far from exhausted its potential, and continues to captivate composers, performers, and audiences alike. This phenomenon is due to the comparative simplicity of its physical structure, and to the intuitive process through which it produces sounds, resulting also in a relative immediacy on the plane of performance. This, obviously, does not take into account the ultimate results of harp-building, composition for the harp and harp-playing, all of which have reached levels of extreme sophistication. Still, if you allow a moderately curious child in the vicinity of a harp, within minutes he or she will have discovered how to make it sound. A major step in the harp’s development, however, was represented by the addition of pedals, which drastically changed the way one thought about the harp and what could or could not be done with it. Thanks to the pedals, it became possible to realize hitherto impossible passages, and a whole horizon of new possibilities opened up. This, of course, was providential at a time when the overall Western musical language and culture were increasingly fascinated by chromaticism, and were tempted to insert notes extraneous to the main key at every corner. It is not by chance, therefore, that in the twentieth century, when the general repertoire was progressively distancing itself from tonality, or at least from an unquestioning approach to it, the harp knew a revival in the interest of composers, who suddenly saw its new potential. The combination of the refreshing novelty of an instrument which was centuries old but seemed entirely new, of its techniques of sound production, which enticed the experimentalism of many avantgarde composers, and of the dialogue between tradition and novelty it afforded were among the many factors prompting the composition of a whole new repertoire for the harp. This Da Vinci Classics album offers a panorama over some of the most significant harp works written in the twentieth century: not only do they represent some exceptionally fascinating results of the entire musical art in contemporaneity, but they also constitute as many samples of different schools, genres, and approaches to music in general, and to the harp in particular. The programme opens with the Harp Sonata composed by Germaine Tailleferre, one of the most important French composers of the early twentieth century, and the only female member of the Groupe des Six, along with Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric and Louis Durey. Tailleferre’s life was far from easy, and her considerable talent and skills were at times prevented from reaching their full development by family and health situations. Still, in spite of this – or, who knows, perhaps due to this – her approach to music is generally light-hearted and humorous. Her work not infrequently bring a smile on the listeners’ lips, and this happens also with her Harp Sonata, recorded here. It is structured into three movements, in the typical structure of the Classical Sonata, with two fast movements framing a slow and more lyrical one. The refinedness of her language clearly emerges in this work, where her precision in the handling of harmony, counterpoint and texture is abundantly demonstrated. The opening movement is characterized by its initial motto, a march-like rhythm. The central movement is a small masterpiece where the seeming simplicity of the scoring reveals, to the trained ear, a very deep understanding of musical processes and of the most advanced languages of her contemporaries (including, for instance, Erik Satie). The brilliant concluding movement is a breathtaking whirlwind of sounds, slightly reminiscent of non-European music. Indeed, it has a distinctly American flavour, perhaps due to Tailleferre’s memories of the time she spent in the US during World War II. Along with jazzy influences, it also reveals hints of Spanish Habanera, and is indebted to the omnivorous approach found in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G; suggestions from circus music and from the world of the machines after the industrial revolutions are not missing. Tailleferre would take up this score once more shortly afterwards and transform it into a Concerto for soprano and orchestra, to be premiered and recorded in 1955 by Jeanine Micheau. In its original version for the harp, this Sonata, composed in 1953 and published in 1957, had been commissioned by star harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, who was enthused by Tailleferre’s music. He had already performed her Concertino for Harp and Orchestra obtaining an impressive success, and therefore was interested in adding other works by her to his repertoire and to that of solo harp music in general. The Sonatina by Sergiu Natra was composed about a decade later, in 1965, upon a commission from the most prestigious and important harp competition in the world, the Israel Harp Contest, which required it as a compulsory piece for its third edition. This work represents the artistry of Natra, a musician whose long life embraced almost a century (1924-2021), in spite of the hard experiences he had to suffer in his youth. A Romanian Jew with Austrian, German and Czech ancestors, he underwent Nazi persecution and miraculously escaped death. His precocious talent earned his work awards and performances in his early teens and twenties, including the prestigious Enescu Award for composition in 1945. In 1961 he emigrated to Israel together with his wife, Sonia, who was an artist in turn; in Israel, he considerably enlivened the musical panorama both as a composer and as a pedagogue (he taught at the Tel Aviv University). His compositional style is deeply rooted within the Central European tradition, but offers a refreshing perspective on ancient models, thanks to a certain eclecticism and to the exploration of new means of sound production. His Sonatina represents, therefore, both its composer’s personal mark of style, and the potential of the instrument for which it is conceived, thanks to a very idiomatic treatment of the harp. The third movement is particularly noteworthy for the liveliness and energy it transmits, which never fail to impress the audience. Hindemith wrote his own Sonate für Harfe in 1939. It was a difficult time for the composer, who had expressed publicly his criticism of the Nazi regime in 1934, and had been the object of a boycott in Germany afterwards. He was not allowed to leave the country in 1936, and therefore his activity as a solo violist was seriously damaged. He focused therefore on composition and the writing of theoretical works. In 1938 they left Germany for Switzerland, where the Harp Sonata saw the light. The hardships of that time are faithfully mirrored by the content of the piece. The dedicatee of the work was an Italian harpist, Clelia Gatti-Aldrovandi, to whom another major harp Sonata was dedicated, i.e. that by Alfredo Casella. In the two decades between 1935 and 1955 Hindemith composed no less than 26 Sonatas for several instruments, thus demonstrating the dynamism and fecundity of a form which was deemed to be a relic of the past by many. As previously mentioned, the Sonata’s mood reflects that of the time of its composition. The third movement is a kind of wordless song, inspired by a poem by the German Romantic poet Ludwig Hölty. In it, a dying poet and harpist expresses a last wish, i.e. that his harp be placed behind the altar of a church, so that it might play as if moved by invisible hands at sunset. This image is reminiscent of a Jewish legend, according to which King David’s harp, hanging above his bed, would produce sounds, moved by the wind, during the night, awaking its player in order for David to sing God’s praises. However, it has been surmised, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, that Hindemith foresaw a narrative programme also for the other movements: the first would be the description of a church where an organist is rehearsing, the second would describe a child’s play, running and singing in front of the church, setting the stage for the final contemplation of death in the third movement. Unusually for Hindemith, the musical language of the Sonata is not overcomplicated, and counterpoint is not as pervasive as in other of his works. In particular, the third movement clearly reveals its vocal inspiration in the purity of its melodic lines. Hindemith’s ideas about the harp were expressed, somewhat bluntly, in a lecture given at Harvard in 1949-50: “Remove the keyboard from a piano and what remains is basically a harp. The simpleton who took the harp for a nude piano did not know how in his innocence he touched one of the mysteries of musical genetics! Nevertheless, the harp in its natural form, unhampered by a keyboard, has, in spite of its closeness to the player’s touch, enough weaknesses to prevent it from assuming a place in the very first rank of important musical implement”. At the time (1939) of the Harp Sonata’s composition, though, Hindemith was very satisfied with his own capability to write idiomatically for the instrument: “I sent the Harp Sonata off to you today. It took somewhat longer, for it was in Turin the whole time having its heart and kidneys checked out by the expert. There was nothing to change except a few very small things – even the pedal markings were all right. That’s really something for a non-harpist composer!”. Harp technique is brought to its most complex levels also by Ernst Krenek, whose Sonata für Harfe (1955) decidedly ventures into the most complex harmonic fields and challenges the soloist’s pedalling skills virtually at each measure. Just as Tailleferre’s Sonate, this too was composed for Nicanor Zabaleta. Here, as in many of Krenek’s other works, complexity arises from the variety of the musical languages involved, and from the composer’s capability to forge his own idiom out of a plurality of sources. This album’s programme is completed by the brilliant and sparkling three-movement Sonata by Darius Milhaud, whose very personal style – made of elegance, irony, liveliness and humour – leaves its mark on every detail of the composition. Syncopated rhythms, playful melodies, virtuosic harp runs and joyful atmospheres, which characterize the outer movements, frame the delicacy and the more contemplative mood of the second movement. Together, these magnificent works abundantly demonstrate how the harp looks to the future, and how it is capable of constantly reinventing itself, in spite of – or thanks to? – its millenary history.
    Chiara Bertoglio © 2023


    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.


    Darius Milhaud: (b Marseilles, 4 Sept 1892; d Geneva, 22 June 1974). French composer. He was associated with the avant garde of the 1920s, whose abundant production reflects all musical genres. A pioneer in the use of percussion, polytonality, jazz and aleatory techniques, his music allies lyricism with often complex harmonies. Though his sources of inspiration were many and varied, his music has compelling stylistic unity.

    Ernst Krenek [Křenek]
    (b Vienna, 23 Aug 1900; d Palm Springs, CA, 22 Dec 1991). Austrian composer and writer, also active in Germany and the USA. One of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, he wrote in a wide variety of contemporary idioms.

    Krenek began piano lessons at the age of six and was soon writing short piano pieces. In 1916 he began composition study with Schreker, whose emphasis on counterpoint prepared Krenek for Kurth’s Lineare Kontrapunkte, a text that caused the young composer to conclude that ‘music was not just a vague symbolization of emotion instinctively conjured up into pleasant sounding matter, but a precisely planned reflection of an autonomous system of streams of energy materialized in carefully controlled tonal patterns’. Conscripted into the Austrian Army during World War I, Krenek was posted to Vienna where he was able to continue his studies. In 1920 he followed Schreker to Berlin, where he attended the salon of Busoni, met Hermann Scherchen and befriended Eduard Erdmann and Artur Schnabel. Works from this period reflect Schreker’s influence in their use of counterpoint and extended tonality.

    Germaine Tailleferre: (b Parc-St-Maur, nr Paris, 19 April 1892; d Paris, 7 Nov 1983). French composer. Despite her father’s opposition and her equal skills in art she entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1904, her formative studies being undertaken with Eva Sautereau-Meyer. As a pianist prodigy with an amazing memory she won numerous prizes, and in 1913 she met Auric, Honegger and Milhaud in Georges Caussade’s counterpoint class. In 1917 Satie was so impressed with her two-piano piece Jeux de plein air that he christened her his ‘musical daughter’, and it was he who first brought her to prominence as one of his group of Nouveaux Jeunes. She then went on to become the only female member of Les Six when it was formed in 1919–20. Her career was also assisted by the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, who liked her ballet Le marchand d’oiseaux (1923) enough to commission a Piano Concerto (1923–4), which proved similarly successful and demonstrated her natural affinities with the 18th-century clavecinistes. Tailleferre’s talents fitted in perfectly with the prevailing spirit of Stravinskian neo-classicism, though she was also influenced by Fauré and Ravel, remaining in close contact with the latter throughout the 1920s.

    Unfortunately, Tailleferre never regained the acclaim she had enjoyed through her early associations with Les Six. Two unhappy marriages (to the caricaturist Ralph Barton in 1926 and to the lawyer Jean Lageat in 1931) proved a considerable drain on her creative energies, and her continual financial problems led her to compose mostly to commission, resulting in many uneven and quickly written works. Also, her natural modesty and unjustified sense of artistic insecurity prevented her from promoting herself properly, and she regarded herself primarily as an artisan who wrote optimistic, accessible music as ‘a release’ from the difficulties of her private life. However, her concertos of the 1930s enjoyed a measure of success, as did her impassioned Cantate du Narcisse (1938, words by Paul Valéry), and she was much in demand as a skilful composer of film music. After a fallow period in the USA (1942–6) she produced the superb Second Violin Sonata (1947–8) and turned her attention towards opera – her lighthearted approach being epitomized in the four short comic pastiches written with Denise Centore in 1955 (‘Du style galant au style méchant’). She also gave successful concert tours with the baritone Bernard Lefort, for whom she wrote the Concerto des vaines paroles (1954), and in 1957 she experimented briefly with serial techniques in her Clarinet Sonata. Although she continued to compose prolifically and teach until the end of her life, she resorted increasingly to self-borrowing and familiar formulae (like the perpetuum mobile), and the circularity of her career can be seen in the stylistic ease with which she was able to complete her 1916–17 Piano Trio in 1978. Meeting the conductor Désiré Dondeyne in 1969 led to a new interest in composing for wind band and she also remained devoted to children and their music, a link which helps explain the spontaneity, freshness and charm that characterize her best compositions.

    Paul Hindemith
    (b Hanau, nr Frankfurt, 16 Nov 1895; d Frankfurt, 28 Dec 1963). German composer, theorist, teacher, viola player and conductor. The foremost German composer of his generation, he was a figure central to both music composition and musical thought during the inter-war years.

    Sergiu [Nadler, Serge] Natra
    (b Bucharest, 12 April 1924). Israeli composer of Romanian birth. He studied at the Bucharest Academy of Music with Leo Keppler. In 1945 he won the George Enescu Prize for his March and Chorale (which was performed by the Palestine PO in 1947, 14 years prior to his immigration to Israel); he won the Romanian State Prize in 1951. In 1961 he settled in Tel-Aviv, where his music was soon recognized and performed at the Israel Festival by the Israel PO and Israel Chamber Ensemble. From 1975 to 1985 he taught at the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel-Aviv University. His Israeli honours include the Milo (1965), Engel (1970) and Prime Minister (1984) prizes for composers.