..."a type of chamber music conversation of like-minded virtuosity and color."
Ginastera: Harp Concerto, OP. 25
Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Sidsel Walstad, harpist. Lawo Classics. 2019.
Solo harpist of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Sidsel Walstad says stretching the bounds of her harp playing world as an electric harpist helped her when setting out to perform Alberto Ginastera’s intricate and complex harp concerto. It also didn’t hurt to have a background in ballet. Based on the folk dance rhythms of his native Argentina with echoes of the percussive qualities and rhythmic abandon of Stravinsky and Bartok, this concerto is a bit like “climbing a mountain” for most soloists, but in Walstad’s hands, it appears de rigueur. And that can also be said for her spectacular backup band led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, joining in a type of chamber music conversation of like-minded virtuosity and color.
This concerto brought the harp out from the chorus line of a clichéd angelic past and into the front lines of solo virtuosity. Ginastera utterly redefined the landscape for the harp, much as Roger Bannister changed the expectations of how long it takes to run a mile. No longer would anyone hear—or play—the harp in the same way. Beginning with fiery and biting accented chords alternating two with three, the harp plunges in immediately setting the feverish pace, and yet Walstad manages to sound almost laid back, playing with a kind of “I’ve totally got this’’ insouciance, her tone a grounded alto, even in the high register. Never pressed or angsty, she does the opposite, seemingly calming the wild abandon of the orchestra. No less acrobatic and technically thrilling by any means, she maintains a kind of control picked up from her days at the ballet barre where the goal was to make everything look easy and never break a sweat.
It’s in the slow movement that the orchestra and soloist display their tender side, demonstrating a willingness to linger in the biting dissonances that refuse to ever quite resolve. The effect is of the wide-open pampas in the Argentine countryside, mysterious and not quite in focus. I never wanted it to end, though I sometimes wanted a bit more lingering and bit less moving forward.
A cadenza of surprising extended techniques opens the final movement, the harp strumming the open notes of a guitar as a kind of dare. Walstad whispers, wails, growls, hisses, and intones gloriously, leaving us eating out of her hands. When the final harp gasp leads to the orchestra entering in a wild duet of percussion and ostinato strings, the game is on. The harp cuts through the fray, exchanging the lead line with the vigor of an orchestra playing as one, her nails-on-strings a chance to play alongside the superb percussion section. The orchestra never stops in this folk-inflected dance as it pushes to a magnificent ending.
Also on the disc, is Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, self-identified as “subjective Argentine” with melodies that sound traditional, but are in fact, original. Again, opening with the harp mimicking the open strings of a guitar, the orchestra manages to make this concerto for orchestra sound as if growing directly out of the harp concerto. Of particular note is the opening cello solo, with a despairing quality to make gaucho weep. Unfortunately, the microphone setup often left the woodwinds overpowered and unbalanced by the strings.