"Overall, a well-played album with superb choice of repertoire, and one I would recommend for the harp ensemble aficionado."
Chicago Harp Quartet: Marguerite Lynn Williams, Kathleen Ventura, Catherine Litaker, and Emily Ann Granger, self-released. 2014.
Marguerite Lynn Williams, Kathleen Ventura, Catherine Litaker and Emily Ann Granger are the Chicago Harp Quartet, fabulous working musicians in their own right who have played all over the world and with some of the best ensembles in the world including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra. How they find time to make music together is the question, but they are dedicated, and this new disc Soirées d’été is the result of a commitment to the art form of the harp ensemble.
While the playing is spot on, engaging, and sets these lovely musicians in the very best light, I find the ensemble itself limited in scope of texture and color. The volume is nearly always at an inoffensive mezzo-forte, and the range of color pastel rather than shot through with anything even on the verge of loud, bright, or shocking. It is beautiful playing for sure, but seems to lack definition or depth. That has not kept me from playing the music on the radio, but I found I longed to be challenged and to find out what more these women might give me. I wanted to start an argument, threaten to tip over a harp, to begin dancing wildly to Boccherini’s “Fandango” and force their hand, make them go beyond beauty and accuracy.
But is that often the most common difficulty to overcome with a harp ensemble? Can ensemble playing—by its very nature—become a kind of cancelling of color? Where one or two can be a riot of sound like in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, four harps risk becoming more what sound would be on anti-depressants—no highs or lows though at all times pleasant.
With these inherent risks in mind, I listen suspending expectation of anything radical and I must tell you I hear superb playing, virtuosas clearly enjoying cramming together four giant instruments and making music not in the solitude of the back of an orchestra counting rests before a big solo or in a frilly outfit playing non-stop for a fancy party. This was especially evident in the title track. And as I write this with a negative-30 wind chill in St. Paul, Minn., Bernard Andrès “Summer Nights” was exactly what I needed. Our gals get almost there in the sheer abandon this piece needs. Again, they delight, but when things beg to become ecstatic, they back off ever so slightly. Was this a corporate decision? Is this the placement of mics? Is this simply what happens in the confines of a session, when being accurate holds all of us back?
Marguerite Lynn Williams is quite a skilled composer, her musings make good use of the sonic effects possible with four harps. “Musings” muses, and I found myself lost in the spell.
Both Baroque works, Bach’s Brandenburg No. 3 and one of Vivaldi’s L’estro Armonico are played with impeccable technique, tight ensemble, and metronomic precision. When one speaks of melodies “spun out” in the Baroque, the harps en masse capture that feeling even better than strings.
Most successful was the tiny work by Gereado Tamez: “Tierra Mestiza.” Some of the spinning feel of Vivaldi bled into this one, a work written for a Mexican folk group. It’s a modern work, but is heavily influenced by the mixed cultures of the New World. This must be the piece most enjoyable to watch in concert as the four glissandos up and down their harps while passing around the ritmo típico.
Overall, a well-played album with superb choice of repertoire, and one I would recommend for the harp ensemble aficionado. •