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Elisabeth Remy Johnson’s Solo Harp Album Highlights Gorgeous Works by Female Composers

Elisabeth Remy Johnson‘s new album Quest – streaming at Spotify – is a rapturously eclectic mix of solo works for harp by women composers from the past 150 years. Beyond the monumental amount of sleuthing that Johnson put into this, these compositions are absolutely gorgeous, deserve to better known and transcend the lure of the harp demimonde. Most but not all of them are on the quiet side; Johnson’s attention to detail and dynamics is as meticulous as it is heartfelt. And her new arrangements of piano works are revelatory.

She opens with the album’s title track, an utterly Lynchian short work by Niloufar Nourbakhsh, eerie dissonances interpolated within a simple two-chord vamp. Cécile Chaminade’s even briefer Aubade, a subtly wistful pavane, makes a good segue, even if the idiom is completely different.

Amy Beach’s A Hermit Thrush at Morn is a characteristically fascinating blend of the Romantic….and what Messiaen might have written had he been up early one New Hampshire morning to transcribe birdsong. French Late Romantic composer Mel Bonis is represented by five arrangement of short piano pieces: a gently bubbling stream; a steady, baroque-tinged lullaby; Mélisande, a nocturne; Desdémona, a broodingly ornamented waltz; and a distant, dreamy clock-chime theme.

Johnson stays in stately 3/4 time for one of Fanny Mendelssohn’s better-known short piano works, Melodie. Romanze, a Clara Schumann piano piece, gets a tersely resonant reinvention on Johnson’s harp that brings out new levels of pensive angst. There’s more of that, played more spaciously, in Lili Boulanger’s Debussy-esque D’un Vieux Jardin.

Johnson maintains that ambience in her imaginative, pointillistically harmonized version of the old folk song Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies, shifting to the stark, starry bluegrass tinges of John Riley, from Kati Agócs‘ suite Every Lover is a Warrior

Sally Beamish‘s Pavan has immensely more sprightliness and color than the title would imply. There’s mysterious, scintillating detail in Skye, a dynamically shifting Scottish-inspired work by Freya Waley-Cohen. Johnson winds up the album with the longest and most dramatic piece here, Johanna Selleck‘s Spindrift, a bracingly chromatic, windswept ocean scene that draws heavily on extended technique.

Johnson’s extensively researched liner notes are acerbic and priceless: “From today’s perspective, some of the stories of the composers born in the 19th century range from mystifying to enraging. I believe their families did not operate from an overt intent to oppress, but instead were contemplating societal norms, and trying to chart the path of least resistance for their daughters, sisters, and wives. Luckily for us, each of these women defied the limits and defined their own paths. It also bears mentioning that, for the most part, each had substantial financial resources at their disposal.”

June 1, 2021 - Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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