Violin and harp in enchanting lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s

Tabea Squire (violin) and Ingrid Bauer (harp)

Massenet: Meditation from Thaïs
Saint-Saëns: Fantaisie for violin and harp, Op 124
Mozart/Dittersdorf/Eberl/Thomas: Air with Variations and Rondo Pastorale for solo harp
Pärt: Spiegel im Spiegel

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 25 February, 12:15 pm

The harp seems to be asserting itself at present. Though it’s been a pretty standard orchestral instrument since the early 19th century, and a much loved solo instrument both in its many ethnic forms as well as in its larger, more sophisticated character, there doesn’t seem to be a very large body of chamber music involving it.

This recital may well have been inspired in part by the presence of Helen Webby’s harp at the Adam Chamber Music festival in Nelson in January-February. For both the Massenet and the Saint-Saëns were heard there. The transcription for the harp of the Meditation from Thaïs was played in Nelson by Helene Pohl, leader of the New Zealand String Quartet, and Helen Webby. It is particularly beguiling, and while there might have been a difference in the level of experience and sophistication between the performances in Nelson and here, Tabea brought a big romantic sound to her playing, while the harp seemed to be a perfect medium for such a quintessentially emotional piece, a more natural partner than a piano perhaps.

Saint-Saëns was drawn to the harp, I suspect by the same factors that drew both Debussy and Ravel to it, respectively, in the Danse sacrée et danse profane and the Introduction et Allegro. This Fantaisie was played in Nelson by the first violinist of the Ying Quartet, Ayano Ninomiya and Helen Webby; it is hardly in the same class as the pieces by his younger colleagues, yet there is enchantment and variety in its four fairly distinct sections; it lies beautifully for the two instruments and both explored its interesting emotional states with sensitivity.

The next piece was a real curiosity, put together by 19th century Welsh harpist, John Thomas, from pieces by Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Anton Eberl and most importantly, Mozart. The process was clearly one that would be abhorred by today’s scholars and many musicians schooled in doctrines of historical authenticity, but if the test is simply the agreeableness of the result, condemnation would be hard to justify.

In any case, the first part, the Air with Variations, offered the harpist scope for a variety of diverting techniques, strongly contrasting dynamics and what seemed to be a muted passage. The second part, the Rondo Pastorale, was the last movement of Mozart’s great Divertimento in E flat for string trio, K 563: one of his most beautiful compositions. Here was pure enchantment; it’s hard to imagine that Mozart would have disapproved of such an enchanting adaptation , so beautifully played.

The last item was one which, like a lot of Arvo Pärt’s music, seems to invite adaptation for different instruments: his Spiegel im Spiegel, which may be the equal of his Fratres in popularity and affection. As with her other introductions, Tabea Squire spoke with careful precision and sensitivity about its basically simple character, a study in triads in various inversions and keys, at each stage of which the home key seemed to be imminent but elusive. The violin carried long sustained notes while the harp suggested that here was the sound that Pärt had really been searching for.


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