For Claire and Philip
The River Town Duo: Claire Happel Ashe, harp, and Philip Alejo, bass. Furious Artisans, 2021.
Philip Alejo and Claire Happel Ashe formed The River Town Duo in 2012 using the paucity of compositions for bass and harp as a motivator for them to commission new works. Their latest release assembles six in a stunning and diverse kaleidoscope. Simply called For Claire and Philip, the title track by Caroline Shaw begins “sweetly plainspoken” underscoring the flexibility of the bass which is at turns lyrical and a snappy time-keeper, especially when the ground shifts into polyrhythm. Similarly rhythmic-based, but in slow motion, Whitney Ashe sets up a stark atmosphere, accentuating the unexpected for effect. Perhaps the most lovely are Evan Premo’s Two Meditations on Poems of Mary Oliver, played as rhapsodically and longingly as the poems they are based on. Contrast that with Derrick Evans’ Lotusland. Inspired by an unsettling experience atop a mountain peak at night, he uses extended techniques liberally to recreate that jarring moment. Harpist and composer Hannah Lash digs deep into the interplay of the related but disparate timbers with Leaves, Space and Stephen Andrew Taylor goes a step further in his art-meets-science Oxygen, performed with mesmerizing perfection.
Rütti: Harp and Piano Duo Praxedis
Praxedis Hug-Rütti, harp, and Praxedis Geneviève Hug, piano. ARS Produktion, 2019.
The mother-daughter harp and piano Duo Praxedis devotes the entirety of their newest album to the richly varied and enthralling music by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. Rütti is best known for his works for choir, and many of the works on this CD are arrangements for his harpist sister and pianist niece. But they are hardly mere rehashing of notes; rather, they’re altogether new explorations of this unusual tonal combination. Most notable is Die Insel inviting the two instruments to speak to one another, the resonance of their strings individual yet complementary. Likewise, Winterlandschaft assigns a character to each voice—the harp, fragile and diaphanous, while the piano, timeless and grounded—eventually building to a kind of boogie-woogie at the climax followed by a jazzy flourish. One of my favorites, Pastorale, shares with the former no association with text and is cinematic in nature, conjuring wide expanses where the fog lifts to reveal the two instruments locked in an ecstatic multi-metered embrace. Also included is a set of nine solo harp pieces, deliciously moody. But if only one thing makes this CD a sure bet, it’s the stunning set of Three Christmas Carols that close the disc.