Lunchtime Series 2016/17 Concert 4

Chroma 17th.Nov 2016

There are some concerts which look intriguing on paper and such a one was that given by the chamber group Chroma in the Lunchtime Series and centred entirely on music for the harp and strings. The Museum has in the past played host to the occasional Harp recital but a complete concert of ensemble pieces featuring the instrument was new to me.  So it has to be said was the music.  Indeed, Ravel’s wonderful  Introduction and Allegro and Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto are about the sum total of my concert experience of the harp in a concertante role.

Sadly, whilst grateful for the opportunity, I have to admit to the prospect having been more interesting than the reality. Despite there being clearly three fine musicians on the platform, the concert as a whole rarely sent the blood racing. Of course, one has to be wary about judging music on a first hearing but the fact remains that in all honesty much of it seemed to me perfectly easy on the ear  but also largely unmemorable.  Ibert’s Trio was, well, quintessential  Ibert, that is witty in places, relentlessly bouncy and smart but in the end, to my ears at least, largely predictable. His and, with the major exception of Poulenc, most of the music of Les Six sounds to me these days as stuck in a time warp. It’s like being trapped at a party in the company of a relentless Wit.

Clearly Henriette Renié’s Trio had different intentions. I had never come across her name before, never mind her music. Helen Sharp, the harpist, gave a rather sad description of the buttoned up nature of Renié’s day and of her life. The internet revealed the degree to which she was revered as a harp player and as someone who over a long life finishing in the 1950’s had had a great influence on the development of the instrument, and all this despite continual ill health. Her composition had its moments. The Andante was the most characterful movement in which the strings in particular had a theme that achieved some lyrical beauty. In the work as a whole, though, an individual voice seemed to emerge rarely and there appeared to be  much rather repetitive working out of what seemed to me often very short winded material.

That left Saint –Saëns’ Fantaisie for violin and harp, which rather ironically was the stand out work in the concert. I say ‘ironically’ because ,since being lionised in the last part of the 19c, until recently this composer’s music has been regarded by ‘serious’ concertgoers as facile. That view is perhaps changing  and in this work one could see why.  This was beautifully written music of  genuinely individual substance, not facile at all in fact unless by facile one means having  a seemingly effortless lyrical gift. In addition the range and shifts of colour constantly engaged the ear in this fine performance.

Finally, the success of this particular work in the concert raised another rather interesting issue. One wondered whether it was coincidental that it was written for one stringed instrument and harp. Elsewhere in the concert, the harp seemed often lost in the string sound. Indeed, at times the huge instrument might just as well not have been on the platform at all. One wondered whether one’s view of the Trios might been more positive  if the placing of the instruments on the platform had been different and hence the harp possibly more present. Putting the latter end on to the audience and in particular almost completely behind the violin and cello seemed to do the instrument no favours at all. Perhaps the truth is that it will always struggle to penetrate when pitted against the sound of more forthright instruments. It was possibly a straw in the wind that Renié apparently wrote her work with a piano part as an alternative to the harp.