The Glass Effect. Lavinia Meijer, harp. Sony Classical
The harpist Lavinia Meijer proves that one of the world’s oldest instruments has a voice in contemporary music. The concert harp’s warmth and pure ringing tones pair surprisingly well with the music of Philip Glass — and five other contemporary composers — on Meijer’s new double album, “The Glass Effect.”
This isn’t the Dutch-Korean harpist’s first foray into Glass, but the release is timely, as the American icon of minimalism turns 80 on Jan. 31.
Meijer’s transcriptions of 10 of Glass’s 20 piano etudes, on the first disc, sound completely idiomatic. In her nimble hands, the music breathes a newfound transparency. She has technique and stamina to burn, but it is her expressive detailing that raises these performances above the ordinary. The vibrant First etude pulsates with slow-blooming melodic cells, while the Second soothes like a lullaby and the lyrical Eighth unfolds like a song without words. The Fifth, with its seesawing rhythm, feels foreboding, and the gentle Twentieth searches urgently.
The second disc is bookended with excerpts of Glass’s music for the film “Koyaanisqatsi.” “Lift Off,” which closes the album, is an unfortunate misfire, however, an arrangement infused with electro beats and a cheesy NASA-style voice-over.
Before it, though, comes intriguing music from a younger generation comfortable straddling classical and indie rock. Bryce Dessner (of the National) contributes a “Suite for Harp.” Although only 11 minutes, it’s a substantial piece in three contrasting movements exploring techniques and moods as diverse as thickets of interlocking parts and contemplative spaces.
Pairs of slow, wistful piano pieces by Nico Muhly, Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm feel like a six-song super-set. Muhly’s “Quiet Music” pits swaying chords against a touching theme that emerges in spurts. In Frahm’s “Ambre,” a burbling rhythm below supports a spare and aching tune above, while Arnalds, in “Tomorrow’s Song,” proves he can craft a melancholy melody and elegantly milk it.
Amid all the moodiness, the piece “Night Loops,” for harp and electronics, shines brightest. Written for Meijer by Ellis Ludwig-Leone of the Brooklyn-based band San Fermin, the music judiciously deploys snippets of vocalise and subtle synths. At three minutes in, the beat drops with a sparkling rhythmic motif for the harp, cheerfully punctuated by what sound like cellphone vibrations.
Meijer’s album is a fitting tribute to Glass, but it’s also a wake-up call for young composers to pay attention to her versatile, if undervalued, instrument.
Farinelli: A Portrait. Ann Hallenberg, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset. Aparte.
The idea of castrating a pre-adolescent singer to create an extraordinary voice type is horrifying and unthinkable. But in earlier centuries, these men, with their voices frozen in treble mode, were celebrated in Italy, and none was more famous than Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the early music ensemble Les Talens Lyriques in 2011, the conductor Christophe Rousset led the Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg in a recital of music written for Farinelli by Handel, Geminiano Giacomelli, Johann Adolf Hasse, Leonardo Leo, the singer’s brother Riccardo Broschi and his patron Nicola Porpora. It joined similar Farinelli or castrato-themed recordings by Vivica Genaux, Philippe Jaroussky, Cecilia Bartoli and others.
The soundtrack of Gérard Corbiau’s highly fanciful 1994 film on Farinelli’s life digitally blended the singing of a male countertenor and a soprano to approximate the sound of the castrato. Contemporary accounts speak of the sweetness and power of the castratos’ tone, though the only recorded evidence was left by Alessandro Moreschi, a castrato who sang soprano in the Sistine Chapel Choir until 1914, and who no one claimed was the equal of his legendary antecedents. Moreschi sounds, if anything, most like a treble: pale in timbre, mostly devoid of vibrato and occasionally unstable — just on steroids in terms of breath support and volume.
Farinelli, in keeping with the style of the day, could certainly toss off melismatic passages with ease and added ornamentation in slow arias, something reflected in the music written for his voice. Even in this live performance, Hallenberg has relatively few bumps along the way in the long streams of running notes of the fast arias, and her ornamentation and cadenzas are florid and thrilling. The long-breathed vibrato sound is silky and refined, as in the aria “Alto Giove” from Porpora’s “Polifemo.” The only downsides are the normal artifacts of live performance caught by the microphones, such as noisy page turns, audience noises and Rousset’s sharp exhalations at opening downbeats.