Zabaleta Creates Magic on the Harp

Zabaleta cover

MOZART: Concerto for Flute, Harp & Orchestra in C.1 BOÏELDIEU: Concerto for Harp & Orchestra in C.1 RAVEL: Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet.2 J.S. BACH: Prelude in C min. for Harpsichord. KRUMPHOLTZ: Aria with Variations. FAURÉ: Une Châtelaine en sa tour. MATEO ALBÉNIZ: Sonata in D / Nicanor Zabaleta, harpist; 1Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; 1Ernst Märzendorfer, conductor; 1Karlheinz Zöller, 2Christian Larde, flautist; 2Guy Deplus, clarinetist; 2Monique Frasca-Colombier, Marguerite Vidal, violinists; Anka Moraver, violist; 3Hamisa Dor, cellist / Symphonia/ Ermitage ERM-1034

This is one peculiar CD: a compilation of recordings issued way back in the 1960s and ‘70s, mostly on the DGG label, but here missing all attributions of who the accompanying musicians, orchestras and conductors are. As a result, I had to do some digging around the Internet to find out who was playing with him. The problem was compounded by the fact that he made two recordings of the Mozart Flute & Harp Concerto, one with Karl Böhm and one with Ernst Märzendorfer, thus I had to go by the timings of the performances to determine which one was used on this compilation.

ZabaletaThe bottom line, however, is that Zabaleta (1907-1993) was one of the most exciting and virtuosic harpists of all time. During his career, his only real rival was Great Britain’s Osian Ellis. I was fortunate to see both of them in concert: Zabaleta with the Cincinnati Symphony, playing the fantastic Ginastera Harp Concerto, and Ellis in a recital with tenor Peter Pears. Forced to choose between them in terms of technique and vigor, I couldn’t do so. They were both great, but Zabaleta was older and undoubtedly influenced more young harpists than anyone else after Harpo Marx (a much finer musician than his performances of pop music in his movies might suggest).

The biggest problem with the Mozart Flute & Harp Concerto is that it’s routine, uninspired Mozart. The music just toodles along in its lovely but predictable way; honestly, any third-year composition student nowadays could write a parody piece just as good as this. In addition, neither Zabaleta nor flautist Zöller sound as if this was anything more than a routine gig for them. This is the kind of recording you expect to hear on your local classical station’s morning drive-time program. Ironically, François Boïeldieu’s Harp Concerto, though certainly not in a league with Ginastera’s, is a more interesting and creative piece than the Mozart, and in the second movement Zabaleta sounds more emotionally involved. I would much rather have heard Rodrigo’s Concierto Serenata for Harp, recorded by the same forces at the same time (1960), on this disc in place of the Mozart, and the surprisingly dramatic Dittersdorf Harp Concerto in A (conducted by Paul Kuentz) in place of the Boïeldieu.

Finally we reach some really meaty music in the Ravel Introduction and Allegro. Note how more creative the use of the instruments is: it’s not just the harmonic language being more modern, but the interaction of the musical lines that engages the mind much greater. I also enjoyed his harp transcription of Bach’s C minor Prelude for Harpsichord, played crisply and with great phrasing and use of dynamics. The Krumpholtz “Aria” is also exquisitely played, as are the short pieces by Fauré and Albéniz.

The price of this CD is not in the budget line; at $15, it is competitive with many full-price discs. But it is such a terrific cross-section of his work in standard and unusual (the Boïeldieu and Krumpholtz) repertoire, not duplicated in this exact combination elsewhere, that I have no reservation about recommending it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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