HARP RECITAL

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

It’s very good to see Sarah O’Brien recording a solo disc. You’ve heard her before, possibly many times, as principal harp of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Now she’s moved to Munich and hopefully isn’t suffering too much under the scattershot baton of Christian Thielemann. Never mind; she’s a superb player. I have extremely vivid memories of her contributions to Finland’s Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival a few years back, where she was more than a good sport as she and her unwieldy instrument were schlepped around from one venue to the next multiple times each day (never mind the simultaneous teaching responsibilities). She turned in remarkable performances of André Caplet’s super-creepy Conte fantastique (after Poe) and a delicious rarity by Malipiero, his Sonata a cinque, among other worthy efforts.

So it’s quite salutary to see her putting together such a highly varied program for this release. No silly transcriptions of “Clair de lune” or other bits of fluff here. Indeed, the only piece not originally composed for the harp is the very substantial C.P.E. Bach Sonata in G major Wq139, which works extremely well in this arrangement. The two Caplet Divertissements (one in the French style, the other Spanish), though light and charming, are also very musically rewarding, as is the Tailleferre Sonata. But the real treat on this disc comes in the form of the Britten Suite, a late masterpiece that seems wholly neglected but sounds unmistakably like its composer within the first 30 seconds. This is Britten’s only solo piece for an instrument that he wrote for with unflagging sympathy and imagination in his operas and other large works.

I was a bit concerned at the inclusion of Holliger’s Praeludium, Arioso, and Passacaglia. After all, Holliger’s music is generally horrendous, representing many of the worst aspects of the passing post-War German avant-garde. But then, it’s hard to be hideous with a harp, and even though the brief “Arioso” features some sharp, finger-shredding chords that O’Brien attacks with masochistic relish, the piece is actually very enjoyable. Remember that Holliger’s wife, Ursula, is a harpist, so perhaps for once the demands of domestic tranquility trumped aesthetic or ideological pedantry, for aside from a few pretty cool additional sound effects the music sounds almost normal, in a good sense. Anyway, the whole program adds up to a stunningly wide-ranging exploration of the potential of the harp, and O’Brien plays not just with a totally commanding technique and a liquid tone, but with almost no extraneous noise. She’s also recorded in absolutely state-of-the-art SACD multichannel sound. This is the sort of disc that’s all too easy to overlook. Try to see that you don’t. [1/11/2008]



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Recording Details:

Album Title: HARP RECITAL
Reference Recording: none

Works by Caplet, Tailleferre, C.P.E. Bach, Holliger, & Britten -

  • Sarah O'Brien (harp)

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