20th Century Harp Sonatas. Harp sonatas by FLAGELLO, HINDEMITH, CASELLA, TAILLEFERRE, and HOUDY

20th-CENTURY HARP SONATAS ● Sarah Schuster Ericsson (hp) ● DORIAN DSL-92106 (68:56)
FLAGELLO Harp Sonata. HINDEMITH Harp Sonata. CASELLA Harp Sonata. TAILLEFERRE Harp Sonata. HOUDY Harp Sonata.

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, bracing, and 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 these 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 neo-classicism 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 neo-classicists. 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.