Remember those idyllic days of fin-de-siècle France, when life was an endless pique-nique in a sunlit field of flowers? No? Neither do I. But on Sunday evening at the National Gallery of Art, the virtuosic harpist Emmanuel Ceysson presented a program of French music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that evoked a world of distant, shimmering beauty — a last gasp of innocence before modernism crashed the party — that dovetailed with the Gallery’s ongoing “Degas/Cassat” exhibit.
Ceysson is a rising star in the harp world, and from the opening “Impromptu-Caprice” by Gabriel Pierné, it was clear that both his technique and his musicianship are virtually flawless. The harp may seem ethereal, but it’s capable of an almost orchestral richness of sound, and the first half of the program — romantic, ultra-refined showpieces from such early harpist-composers as Albert Zabel, Alphonse Hasselmans and Henriette Renié — allowed Ceysson to display a vast arsenal of coloristic techniques.
But beyond the sweeping glissandi and diaphanous, perfectly-plucked passages, it was Ceysson’s musical intelligence that really impressed. He imbued Renié’s “Légende” with an otherworldly light, and the many levels of Hasselmans’s “La Source” seemed to float against each other with weightless transparency. Even Zabel’s rather stagy “Faust Fantasie” came off with convincing style.
It was the impressionist-era works in the second half of the program, though, that revealed Ceysson’s more substantial depths. He played the Debussy preludes “La fille aux cheveux de lin” and “Bruyères” with a delicacy almost impossible to achieve on the piano, and two clever, richly imaginative Divertimentos by André Caplet were a delight to hear. Marcel Tournier’s gentle, pastoral “Vers la source dans le bois” gave the impression of being awash in dappled sunlight.
The high point, though, may have been Gabriel Fauré’s “Une châtelaine en sa tour, op. 110,” a rich and emotionally complex work that Ceysson played to near perfection. Oddly, he seemed a little less comfortable in his own composition, “Paraphrase sur Carmen de Georges Bizet,” which had a few wooden moments. But it was an impressive and deeply involving evening all in all, and a wildly enthusiastic ovation brought Ceysson back for an encore: “Colorado Trail” by Marcel Grandjany, another French harpist-composer.
Brookes is a freelance writer.