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Celestial strings

Anneleen Lenaerts (Handout)

Celestial strings

Four harp albums will leave listeners wanting to hear more

In the popular imagination, few musical instruments have become more closely associated with Heaven than the harp. It’s a conception to which the latest releases by Anneleen Lenaerts, Helene Schütz, Rachel Talitman, and Vanessa Gerkens—their primarily secular intentions notwithstanding—pose little if any threat.

The most celestial of the four—in that it begins with a Bach partita and in that Bach dedicated his compositions to the glory of God—is Helene Schütz’s Saitenwechsel: Works for Solo Harp (Haenssler Classic). Composed for keyboard, the Partita No. 1 in B-flat as arranged, performed, and soft-miked by Schütz glistens corona-like as if through a mist gradually dispersing in the wake of the piece’s occasionally brisk pace.   

She devotes the subsequent 36 minutes to pieces by Scarlatti, Debussy, Rameau, and Liszt, inter-sequencing them for maximum contrast. She saves the most familiar of these, Debussy’s “Claire de lune,” for last, essentially turning it into an encore. Given the quality of the performances that have gone before, it’s a treat for which the audience will want to stick around.

Anneleen Lenaerts’ Nino Rota: Works for Harp (Warner Classics) also saves its best-known pieces for last. In the case of Nino Rota (the 10th anniversary of whose death Works for Harp commemorates), these pieces include his “Love Theme” from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and suites of music that he composed for the soundtracks of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Coppola’s The Godfather. Accompanied but not overwhelmed by the Brussels Philharmonic under the direction of Adrien Perruchon, Lenaerts conveys the music’s wide-ranging moods (as well as those of Rota’s lesser-known contributions to John Guillermin’s Death on the Nile and Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew) with appropriate and authoritative sensitivity. 

But, as his fans are quick to point out, Rota was much more than a film composer. And in devoting the first two thirds of Works for Harp to stimulating renditions of his Concerto for Harp and Orchestra (1947), his Sonata for Flute and Harp (1937), and his solo-harp showcase Sarabanda e Toccata (1945), Lenaerts goes a long way toward ensuring that Rota’s non-cinematic output gets its due.

On Stepan: Concertos for Harp (Harp & Company), Rachel Talitman, the violinists Laurent Houque and Sophie Ackermann, the cellist Johannes Burghoff, and the hornist Hubert Biebaut attempt to do something similar for the legacy of the 18th-century harpsichordist Josef Antonín Štěpán. But unlike Rota, whose creativity was apparently inexhaustible, and unlike many better-known Classical-era composers, Štěpán (whose name is also spelled Joseph Anton Steffan) had a rather pedestrian musical imagination. 

His melodies, in other words, are pretty but not distinctive. One does not walk away humming them even after prolonged exposure. It’s to Talitman’s credit, therefore, that the prolonged exposure (an hour and 19 minutes to be exact) required to take in these four harp concertos passes quite pleasantly. If only it weren’t to Štěpán’s relative discredit that the longer one listens, the more his music seems best suited to the backgrounds of formal dinners or fancy-dress balls.

A similar effect arises from Vanessa Gerkens’ Secret d’Ayweline. The difference is that, were it to play in the background, people would eventually want to know what it is.

Gerkens, who cites Celtic inspiration and bills herself as a “fairy harpist,” writes and plays melodies that, for all their simplicity, focus the attention and stir the emotions. Doubters should start with the sprightly “Danse Korrigan”—and prepare to find themselves wanting to hear both it and the other 17 selections over and over.