"The result for us is sheer bliss."
Cristina Montes Mateo, harp. Cid Records, 2017.
It is no surprise when a tenor and conductor of the stature of a Placido Domingo says he has met thousands of musicians. What might surprise, though, is that he would remember individuals. It would take a virtuoso without peer technically, a musician who has a unique way of expressing herself, a personality that stands above the rest in quality of tone and style. So, when he says he can “highlight only one of them in the harp world,” we really ought to take notice. And even if this might be as effortless for him to say as it is to sign yet another autograph, this time, he is spot on in noting one of the finest harpists in the business, Cristina Montes Mateo.
It’s a combination of her luscious, full, and vibrant sound with her no-nonsense directness that grabs your attention from the first note of Mateo’s latest disc. There’s a passion and a commitment, and a feeling that she embodies the music fully. In fact, she makes the statement on the disc itself that “The real voyage of discovery,” she writes in the CDs jacket, “consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Though, I would argue, her repertoire choices are also a discovery in that they are not as often programmed or done together—they create an exciting voyage, indeed.
The opener is a joyous little prelude by Prokofiev. Originally for piano, the arrangement gives the impression he had harp in mind all along. Mateo articulates with precision and clarity, the complexity only adding a fizz to the simple tune and with just the right amount of forward propulsion. More complex musically is a work by the practically unknown composer Pierre Sancan, a musician much like Messiaen, experimenting with the definition of what it means to be a modernist composer. The set of variations on an original tune is intricate, dramatic and requires the harpist to revel in the space between phrases, changing character on a dime. Mateo has the depth and breadth give clarity to this quirky piece on the first listen.
There’s a story about an 8-year-old Henriette Renié wanting to play a full-sized “big girl” harp so badly even though her feet couldn’t reach the pedals. She played it alright, but when an accidental showed up, she would hop off the bench, change the pedal, and then move on. In fin-de-siecle Paris, she made ends meet teaching young ladies to play the harp, even though she was likely the best in town. There’s a combination of these two personalities in her Legende, the gracious young woman in long white gloves letting the men do the hard work, and the young rascal of a girl showing everyone she could do things no one thought possible. It is exactly this mix that Mateo captures, the humor and impishness alongside just a hint of pomposity. Her timing is spot on as she follows it with Wilhelm Posse’s Variations on “The Carnival of Venice.” Like a good comedian, this piece can only work if the artist plays like Mateo with near-perfect precision, allowing the corniness to take over the room like a bubble machine.
Most effective—and affecting—is her performance of Chaconne from Bach’s second violin partita. Having found out his wife had died while he was away, Bach put everything he felt into this piece, every raw emotion cries out and yet always, in the end, finds its natural resolution. The piece has been arranged for possibly every instrument, and the result for musicians is hopefully one of spiritual transformation rather than simply sheer terror in the number of notes in front of them. The result for us is sheer bliss.