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Walter Simmons
Fanfare, November 2010

Sarah Schuster Ericsson has been harpist of both the Baltimore Symphony and the Boston Symphony orchestras. Here she offers a pleasantly varied program within the rubric identified by the collection’s title. Most noteworthy is the 1961 sonata by American composer Nicolas Flagello. Although he wrote three pieces for harp solo, the sonata is by far the best known, appearing frequently on recitals and at competitions. In fact, this is the third recording of the work currently available on CD. Typical of his music, but atypical of conventional works for harp, Flagello’s sonata is dramatic and serious in tone overall, although leavened by a lovely, melancholy waltz-like slow movement, and a briskly exuberant finale. Ericsson’s approach to the work is richly expansive, in striking contrast to Erica Goodman’s meticulously precise, unsentimental reading (BIS 319). Some of Flagello’s works can benefit from an expansive approach: For a piece like the Harp Sonata, with dense textures and some rhythmic complexity, a broader approach can allow details to blossom, while a tighter, more metronomic approach can force those details “under the rug,” so to speak. On the other hand, taking expansiveness to an extreme can drain rhythmic energy, and cause the work to lose focus. Perhaps the best recorded account of the sonata currently available is that of Julie Ann Smith, harpist with the San Diego Symphony. Her magnificent performance of Flagello’s sonata falls between those two extremes, and is the centerpiece of a lovely recital disc, The Rhapsodic Harp, available from cdbaby.com.

In general Ericsson’s performances are gracious and tasteful, if a trifle hesitant and reserved. Probably the best-known work on the program is the sonata by Paul Hindemith. Ericsson offers an appealing performance of this uncharacteristically warm and lyrical piece. Alfredo Casella (1883–1947), an Italian contemporary of Bartók and Stravinsky, was celebrated as a modernist during the early years of the 20th century, but most of his work has faded from view. His Harp Sonata, composed during World War II, pursues a gentle neoclassicism somewhat similar to the music of Gian-Francesco Malipiero, another contemporary of Casella’s, as well as a fellow countryman. From today’s perspective Casella’s sonata is a solid, attractive work with the slightly archaic flavor characteristic of the Mediterranean neoclassicists. Germaine Tailleferre is remembered today chiefly as the woman among the early French modernists known as Les Six. Her music leans toward a light-hearted cheerfulness that does not appeal to me. Her sonata is the least interesting item on the program. Pierick Houdy, a Breton composer who has spent most of his prolific career in Canada, is still active at 80, as far as I know, although he returned to France in his later years. His wife is a harpist, and he composed his sonata with her in mind. It is a pleasantly melodic, untroubled and untroubling work—another staple of the contemporary harp repertoire.

All in all, this is an ingratiating program, excellently played, and expertly recorded. I suspect that it will please most connoisseurs and enthusiasts of the harp.



Lee Passarella
Audiophile Audition, October 2010

Harp recitals and recordings all too often feature a collection of salon pieces and/or short works for piano or some other instrument in transcription. Sarah Schuster Ericsson dares to be different here, offering instead substantial works from the heart of the twentieth-century harp repertoire. It seems like a breath of fresh air, though you will still probably want to take these pieces one or two at time. I don’t recommend sitting down to the whole program at once, but listening to contrasted pairs, such as Hindemith and Tailleferre or Houdy and Casella, is enjoyable indeed.

Of the five works on the bill of fare, my favorite is the Hindemith. This composer wrote sonatas for just about every instrument you can think of and got around to penning his Harp Sonata in Switzerland, just before immigrating to America on the eve of World War II. Like Casella, Hindemith had entered his final, neoclassical period, but both their works wear their classicism lightly. Hindemith stands the typical sonata format on its head, flanking a fast and lively middle movement with two more introspective ones, the first characterized by piquant dissonances and chord progressions. The somber last movement is based on a poem about a harpist whose last wish is to have his harp placed behind the church altar, where it miraculously plays of its own accord each sundown. Like most tone poems, you couldn’t tell all of this without a program, but the last movement is nonetheless evocative.

Casella wrote his lengthy Sonata for the same Italian harp virtuoso, Ciecilia Gatti-Aldrovandi, at the height of the war in 1943, and it seems to be tinged with the melancholy that Casella felt as the conflict dragged on and his health declined. Even the lively outer movements have a kind of hazy autumnal glow about them.

On the other hand, Tailleferre’s ten-minute Sonata is virtually unclouded, with a march-like first movement, a perpetuum mobile finale, and a Lento middle movement that sounds like a troubadour’s song, complete with strummed accompaniment.

Nicolas Flagello’s Sonata is in some ways the most surprising. The first movement is in his typically fluid neoromantic style, but the last two sound more French than American. The second movement reminds me of Satie’s dreamy Gymnopédies, while the last is an agile dance with wide-open chords that sound like Copland channeling Debussy and Ravel.

Though it’s said to be a crowd pleaser, Pierick Houdy’s Sonata is the least interesting to me. The outer movements sound merely busy and somewhat empty, but even here all is not lost: the central Lento has a lovely simplicity about it, with its bell-like chords and slowly expanding musical argument.

Harpist Sarah Ericsson has sterling credentials: she studied with the great Alice Chalifoux, played with the Baltimore and Boston Symphonies, then embarked on a solo performing and recording career that has netted her a Grammy nomination. On the evidence of the current disc, there is nothing she can’t do superlatively well. Her technique is unimpeachable, and she produces a strong firm tone that’s an absolute necessity in the big works she essays here. The recording, made at George Lucas’s Skywalker Sound in Marin County, is up to Dorian’s usual high standards. Strongly recommended, even to those who normally shy away from harp recitals; it’s that good.



Bill
The WSCL Blog, July 2010

A charming collection of works for solo harp you may not have heard of, but should—a lovely Sonata by Breton composer Pierick Houdy; Alfredo Casella’s Sonata Op. 68; Sonatas by Nicolas Flagello, Paul Hindemith, and Germaine Tailleferre.



Laima
WRUV Reviews, April 2010

Given the delicate quality of the harp, these pieces are mostly ethereal and quiet. Composers included are: Hindemith, Casella, Flagello, Houdy and Tailleferre, all written from late 1930’s to early 1960’s. Play any!






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