"Ms. Plank plays with a quicksilver incisiveness…"
1825: Echoes of Vienna on Historical Harp
Elisabeth Plank, harp. Gramola, 2019
Is every harpist familiar with the year 1825? If you say no, I would reply that you really ought to be. Austrian harpist Elisabeth Plank wants to ensure we are all aware of that year, and I am inclined to agree. That year was the one in which the instrument maker Erard built her double action harp No. 3804, a lovingly restored instrument Ms. Plank plays to such beguiling effect in her new release. Hearing music played on an instrument from the time the music was composed brings us to the actual sounds heard during an epoch that would be seedlings of the coming era when virtuoso music was made for an instrument capable of grandeur.
Ms. Plank is a Viennese of this era, but her education, musicality, and sensibility draws a line straight back to Beethoven. He famously complained about music written for either “piano or harp” when the instruments themselves limited his vision as a creator. And yet, looking through the lens of the modern harp’s capabilities, the double-action instrument’s imbalances of rumbling bass and glassy descant breathe a new understanding into 19th century music.
Beethoven, Rossini, and Spohr are all familiar names represented on this disc, but perhaps most representative of the music of this era is from the most famous harpist of the time, Elias Parish Alvars. He took advantage of the new possibilities afforded by a double action pedal harp which allowed for music to be written in unusual keys, numerous modulations as well as the embellishing of inner voiced melodies, with the harpist moving elegantly throughout the entire instrument’s range. It’s no wonder Alvars was called the “Liszt of the harp” by Berlioz.
Ms. Plank plays with a quicksilver incisiveness, delights in the salon qualities of the instrument, which, rather than dim her virtuosity, seem to emphasize the hard work required to make the performance sound absolutely effortless. There are three works by Alvars on the CD and all are filled with such glorious attention to detail. Ms. Plank achieves the nearly impossible in tricking the ear into hearing melody as a long line as though sung, and I can imagine this is far more difficult to achieve on an historic harp.
And this is what makes the recording so magical. The more mellow and intimate sound of the instrument is enough to make me lean in closer, but also the composers’ choices begins to make sense. Here was a time and place where some of the greatest composers who ever lived congregated, and living in their midst were virtuosi to match. Finding the vehicle was the challenge, so inventors joined in, keeping up as fast as they could. One of my favorite moments is the Serenade by Alvars that creates an atmosphere worthy of the poetry of Chopin. Under Ms. Plank’s hands, this little piece takes us to another world with all of our senses ignited. Like a period film, we can see how people dressed, how they saw the world, what their world looked and what it felt like. And just wait for that glorious tuning key glissando! Perhaps this one trick makes the Viennese of 1825 the most tangibly real and relatable.