La Harp Reine
'La Reine Harpe’ runs the disc’s title, the queen in question being Marie Antoinette, who did for the for harp what Frederick the Great had done for the flute a generation earlier. By 1780 the harp had become the must-play instrument for French demoiselles; and its popularity in the dying ancien régime attracted foreign teachers and virtuosos to Paris, notably the Bohemian Jan Krumpholtz. While he played his concertos himself, he also wrote with one eye on the amateur market, as exemplified by this concerto of 1778 – coincidentally the year of Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto. This is rococo entertainment music at its most decorously pastel, though there is a mild charm in the slow movement, based on a French air, ‘O ma tendre musette’, and the contredanse finale. I can’t imagine a more persuasive performance than that by Xavier de Maistre, imaginatively exploiting what he dubs the ‘incomparably diaphanous sonorities’ of a restored 18th-century pedal harp. Moments of slightly wheezy tuning apart, Les Arts Florissants are lively enough in Krumpholtz’s modest accompaniments, though after the first movement’s no-nonsense orchestral introduction, de Maistre turns out to have a rather more spacious idea of what Krumpholtz implied by Allegro moderato.
I’d never heard of Johann David Hermann, composer of the other concerto here. In mitigation, neither had Grove or the Gramophone catalogue. Again, de Maistre’s playing is a marvel of delicate colouring and shimmering, perfectly even passagework. He just about kept my attention in stress-free music that ripples along agreeably enough, with the odd pretty cantabile tune en route, but makes zero demands on the emotions and intellect.
Allegedly a favourite of Marie Antoinette, the Haydn symphony is, of course, by far the most substantial item in this concert from the Versailles Chapelle Royale. The 20-strong period band – far smaller than the Parisian orchestra for which Haydn wrote the symphony – is not at its best here. If this is to be played as chamber music, it needs more refinement – and poetry – than we get in this brisk jog through the notes. There’s some scrambled, rhythmically unstable playing in both the first movement and the smartly paced Romanze, and violin intonation can be off-centre. The finale has wit and spirit, and the burbling bassoon cadenza in the Minuet’s Trio may make you smile, though this, and the subsequent rescoring of the tune for bassoon solo, wear less well on repetition. Recommended mainly to harp enthusiasts, above all for de Maistre’s dazzling mastery of the instrument.