Spohr: 3 Sonatas for Harp and Violin - Nagasawa, Bernardini
Classical - Chamber
Spohr: 3 Sonatas for Harp and Violin
Masumi Nagasawa (harp)
Cecilia Bernardini (violin)
In 1805, on the basis of his brilliant yet expressive playing, the 21-year-old Louis Spohr was appointed Konzertmeister at the ducal court in Gotha. By this time he had also begun to make his mark as a composer, and during his years at the court he would add several pieces for the harp to his list of works, inspired by the young harpist Dorette Scheidler. Spohr later recalled his reaction to her playing: ‘I was so deeply moved that I could scarce restrain my tears... I took my leave –but my heart remained behind!’ Only months later, the two were in fact married and Spohr began to compose works which would form the repertoire during future concert tours.
Dorette Spohr played a so-called single-action pedal harp of a similar type to the instrument used on this disc. Soon to be replaced by the double-action pedal system, the single-action pedal harp was best suited for playing in flat keys. As Spohr preferred writing his violin parts in sharp keys, which allowed the resonance of the open strings, he adopted the method of tuning the harp a semitone lower, which had the added benefit of reducing the tension on the strings. The Sonatas Opp. 113-115, in D and G major, therefore have harp parts notated in E flat and A flat major respectively. Because of its delicate construction and stringing, the single-action harp has a distinct silvery bell-like sound and these sonatas are among the last important works specifically written for it. They are also the most demanding, but it is clear that Spohr intended them to display not only the technical skill of the two artists but also their musical expressiveness. The performers here are Masumi Nagasawa and Cecilia Bernardini, who have made a particular study of Spohr's writings on performance practice.
Recorded in October 2016 at the Protestantse Kerk’t Woudt, Schipluiden, The Netherlands, 24/96
Producer and sound engineer: Marion Schwebel (Take5 Music Production)
Equipment: BIS’s recording teams use microphones from Neumann, DPA and Schoeps, audio electronics from RME, Lake People and DirectOut, MADI optical cabling technology, monitoring equipment from B&W, STAX and Sennheiser, and Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations.
Post-production: Editing: Marion Schwebel
Executive producer: Robert Suff
Review by Adrian Quanjer - August 15, 2018
One of the widely appreciated virtues of BIS is that commercial considerations don’t always seem their primary objective. It releases more than occasionally wonderful material off the beaten track. Sometimes for the more educated listener, sometimes for the more romantic listener, but as far as I’m concerned always with ‘serving the music’ in mind. Louis Spohr’s duet for violin and harp clearly falls in that category. Perhaps not so much for the educated, but all the more so for the romantics and, above all, the curious. Why?
First element: Spohr was one of the best violinists of his time. Apart from contributing to the contemporary musical scene no less than 18 violin concerti and numerous chamber works for violin and other instruments, he also was a sought after violin teacher. For his 200 or so pupils he wrote ‘Die Violinschule mit erleuternden Kupfertafeln’ (The Violin School, with explanatory copper plates) dealing in extenso with performing practices; a guide book which is still being used.
Second element: Experimenting with new violin techniques in combination with the possibilities offered by the single-action pedal harp, Spohr needed a talented harp player, which happened to be the daughter of Frau Scheidler, one of the court singers of his newly offered position as concertmaster at the court of Gotha. Practicing proved to be very fruitful indeed, and not just for the combination harp violin. In 1806 he married Dorette Scheidler.
Third element: In his violin practicing instructions, Spohr divides playing styles in two main categories: ‘correct’ and ‘beautiful’ performance, the latter “going beyond the notation in many ways’’ or, in other words, giving the violin player more freedom, whilst the accompaniment has to strictly follow the score. In his guide book Spohr stresses, however, that “their use (the beautiful performance) can only be fully appreciated by hearing great performers”.
Fourth element: For this recording the performing duo (and BIS) clearly didn’t want to leave things to chance. Professor Clive Brown from Leeds University, the author of the liner notes, in which he gives ample and well researched information about Herrn und Frau Spohr, their playing practices and, of course, the harp; details going well beyond Wikipedia, was chartered to advise the two on how to give ‘scholarly informed’ expression to a ‘beautiful’ performance.
There it is: the lesson, the romance, the format, the performance. It makes one curious to listen to the result.
In trying to pass judgment, let me begin by saying that the instruments used are genuinely period: a single-action pedal harp by F.J.Naderman, Paris 1815 and a Violin by Camillo Camilli, Mantua 1743. BIS excuses itself for any squeaks and noises of the carefully restored harp, which, in effect, did not disturb me at all: The silvery, yet warm sound is beautifully rich and round, certainly as played here by the Japanese harpist, Masumi Nagasawa.
Many on this site will know Bernardini from her recordings with the Dunedin Consort. For instance in this one: Bach: 2 Violin Concertos, Double Violin Concerto - Bernardini / Daniel / Butt. And whilst she may not be an as outspoken soloist as Rachel Podger in Bach: 2 Violin Concertos - Podger, Bernardini, since 2012 leader (concert master) of the Dunedin Consort, seems to me more part of the orchestral fabric. In this present recording, however, she gets the prime focus, having to prove the virtues of Spohr’s ‘beautiful performance’ principle.
The three (out of six) sonatas may give the impression of well-crafted simplicity, fine jewels of charming invention giving ample room for both instrumentalists to excel, and clearly written to please an audience, but in actual fact, playing them ‘beautified’, complete with portamentos, retenutos, rubatos, as well as numerous passage work, can become a make or break affair.
Bernardini tackles them with amazing brio, to come as close as possible to “recognize the character of the piece of music to be performed and to sense and render its prevailing expression” (Spohr’s diary). It gives the curious amongst us first hand insight in how the ‘beautifications’ as meant by Spohr, should be executed. And yes, Bernardini acquits herself of the job in a fascinating manner, leaving little to be wished for.
I found the sound of her original Camillio Camilli violin, played in baroque style, impressive, though pitch sensitive listeners should be aware of, and adjust themselves to the fact that the Dutch-Italian Cecilia Bernardini, applies lots of portamento (and legato) as required by Spohr’s concept of ‘schöner Vortrag’ (beautiful performance), but no vibrato at all. It becomes strikingly apparent at the start of the first Sonata Op. 113. However, adjusting myself accordingly, I began to more and more enjoy the lovely interplay between both soloists, recognizing that what sounds like pitch problems are for a large part inherent in the performing practice. (If in doubt, listen to the second movement, first theme of the charming ‘Potpourri on themes from The Magic Flute‘).
I would furthermore like to stress that the harp part is by no means an accessory to the glory of the violinist. Not in the least. Here is a team of equals at work. The harpist, Nagasawa, is an unmissable asset to the quality of the overall result, for which she not only provides the solid foundation, but does it also in a way confirming her rightful position in the coveted ranks of ‘notables’ in the trade.
Comparing the combination harp and violin to a piano with violin sonata, I became aware that the harp adds so much more colour; notably this original Naderman harp and readers may have guessed that I’m quite pleased with this release: For the repertoire, the choices made and the efforts put into playing and research, which, taken together, more than make up for what some zealots may possibly pinpoint as hardly noticeable, but nonetheless perceptible imperfections in the conception of the violin part. Considering, furthermore, Take5’s input to this excellent recording, we have here a healthy addition to the catalogue (in any format), so happily far away from all the endlessly repeated accounts of notorious war horses. Do give it a try.
Copyright © 2018 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net