French Reflections

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9 Breathtaking

A superb, must-have album.

  • User Ratings (2 Votes) 6.2

French Reflections: Sivan MagenFrench Reflections

Sivan Magen, harp. Linn Records, 2015.

The golden age for the harp was at the turn of the 20th century, harpist Sivan Magen tells us in the first sentence of liner notes for French Impressions, and who better to bring this evolving instrument to center stage than the French, preoccupied with “sonority, resonance, imagery, and exotic modality?” All those lusty adjectives are in stunning display by Magen himself, who plays with a dreamy, expressive sound that also has a muscular and virile quality unique to him.

The album opens with a work that captures the spirit of the end of a war that resulted in millions of casualties for France. A lyric miniature by one of the greatest song composers of all, Gabriel Fauré, Une châtelaine en sa tour, based on a Paul Verlaine poem, is filled with mystery. Who is this lady in her tower the title speaks of? Or is the piece not so much a story but an elegy for the war or for Fauré, who was coming to the end of his life? Magen plays with clarity and punctuation, speaking to us in a language of sorrow and loss, his timing perfect for each moment of repose. You can hear his sighs as he plays, but it simply gives his playing direction and clarity of intention, something I don’t always hear in soloists.

The following Divertissements by André Caplet are breathtaking. This is the moment when it seems Magen is capable of just about anything technical. It is no longer on a massive instrument of pedals and strings played by only eight fingers; it is music with an astonishingly natural flow. At times, things get heavy almost to the point of stridency, but what an effect! I realize it is a matter of taste, but for me the harp gains more dimension, power, and intensity when pushing the limits alongside its more angelic capabilities. Wasn’t that what the French were going for?

As mentioned in the opening, the French were also going for “exotic modality.” In Philippe Schoeller’s Esstal we jump forward nearly a hundred years. The harp at first appears peaceful in a series of subterranean chords that float aimlessly along, yet soon we feel a menace. Esstal is a fantasy world ruled by an androgynous queen. Magen revels in the rattling discordance of a harmonic’s purity juxtaposed by a thickly wound metal string plucked close to the sounding board. It’s eerie, terrifying, heartless, and yet, like any scary movie, you can’t turn away.

Esstal provides the perfect preamble to the free-wheeling impressionism of Marcel Tournier, who, it’s said, spontaneously improvised the composition of at least one of his harp solos. Again, we hear Magen at his finest in the Sonatine, which requires careful attention to detail and planning, but must make us feel we’re hearing this music for the first time. His sound is lush, his expression no-holds-barred, and his dynamics push the limits. This is playing at its finest.

Caplet makes another appearance as Debussy’s arranger in a steamy rendition of two sections from Estampes. The challenge here is to leave France behind for Spain, which Magen handles eloquently, giving us the impression the harp was used in flamenco at one time.

Bruno Mantovani’s Tocar plays with the textural differences in touch or articulation on the harp. It’s a wild ride of shrill attacks, light and repetitive tremolo, and bold interruptions, and it is fiery stuff. I can’t imagine a harpist more perfect for this music than Magen.

A superb, must-have album.

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Alison Young is a classical music host and producer at Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media. She left a successful career as a flutist a decade ago after she developed a neurological disorder, but before then enjoyed many years traveling the world giving recitals, performing concertos, playing with some of the finest orchestras, and recording her own discs. Nowadays, Young spins discs and is always on the lookout for the next best thing. You can contact her at ayoung@mpr.org.

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