Tuesday 28 May 2024

POETRY OF THE HARP / VIRTUOSE DE LA HARP / Xavier de Maistre & Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Victoria Concert Hall 
Wednesday (22 May 2024) 

Singapore Symphony Orchestra 
Esplanade Concert Hall 
Saturday (25 May 2024) 

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 May 2024 with the title "Xavier de Maistre plucks all the right strings".

It is common practice for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to occasionally have guest soloists offer a solo or chamber recital in addition to performing a concerto. Pianists and violinists figure regularly but this concert pairing was the first to feature a harpist. On Wednesday evening, renowned French harpist Xavier de Maistre gave a sparkling 90-minute recital that had his audience in rapture. 

His recital showcased the breadth and depth of a harpist’s repertoire, built around two major works. Ironically, the only work originally written for the instrument was French woman composer Henriette Renie’s tone poem Legende d’apres les elfes de Leconte de Lisle (Legend after the Elves), a darkly programmatic work about a knight’s night ride fatally beset by forest elves. 

Tension generated by rapid repeated passages simulating rapid hoofbeats, punctuated by moments of uneasy calm, was the driving force. More familiar was Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau from Ma Vlast (My Fatherland) in Hans Trnecek’s transcription, where the popular melody accompanied by the river’s rippling waves was so well-realised that one is led to forget its orchestral origins. 

Just as enjoyable was Giovanni Pescetti’s three-movement Sonata in C minor, where featherlight touches of a harpsichord were lent wider dynamics and fuller sonorities by the harp. Scintillating cadenzas defined Renie’s transcription of the Alyabyev-Liszt Le Rossignol (The Nightingale), a typically Slavic song with strong folk influences. 

Spanish music dominated with Manuel de Falla’s brilliant Spanish Dance from the opera La Vida Breve, contrasted with rapt stillness of the tremolo study that is Francisco Tarrega’s guitar classic Memories of the Alhambra

The harp ably substituted the piano in Enrique Granados Valses Poeticos, a series of elegant waltzes and Claude Debussy’s indestructible Clair de lune, where a momentary lapse did little to sully the fine evening which closed on a high with Felix Godefroid’s Carnival of Venice

On Saturday, Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto received its Singapore premiere with de Maistre partnered with the SSO led by French conductor Pierre Bleuse. People familiar with Ginastera’s Argentinian Dances and First Piano Sonata will recognise its driving rhythms, grinding dissonances, insistent ostinatos and percussive violence. 

However, it is so well orchestrated that de Maistre’s harp became part of the rough-hewn textures, the resonantly percussive timbre of the instrument’s repeated plinks being very audible above the throng. For lyrical and expressive passages, the orchestration thinned accordingly for his sensuous playing to be heard. 

The slow movement and cadenza, titled Liberamente capriccioso, gave voice to the harp’s full gamut of colours, from spectral brushes over the strings to sweeping glissandi. The finale’s frenetic malambo dance, pentatonic and sounding almost oriental, provided a breathlessly exciting conclusion. Loud applause saw a reprise of Wednesday evening’s Godefroid and Tarrega as soothing encores. 

De Maistre’s harp was just half of the picture as the orchestra performed two of three symphonic poems which make up Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Trilogy. Fountains Of Rome, opening the evening, was an arch-like crescendo depicting dawn to dusk in the Eternal City, climaxing with the majesty of the Trevi Fountain at midday. 

Breaching the decibel limit was Feste Romane (Roman Festivals), arguably Respighi’s most vulgar score. Huge orchestral forces included three offstage trumpets announcing gory games at the Circus Maximus, mandolin for the October celebration, pipe organ and no less than ten percussionists to wreak mayhem on Twelfth Night. When performed with such zest and fervour, no apologies for good taste, or the lack of, were needed.

Ten percussionists. Count them all!

The Bachtrack.com review of the SSO concert may be found here:  Xavier de Maistre and Respighi hold Singapore audience in raptures | Bachtrack

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