Xavier de Maistre’s Harp Scintillates with a Touch of Elegance

Nélida Nassar   12.08.2015

Renowned harpists have unique, defining qualities. One thinks of Lily Laskine’s passion and energy; Marcel Grandjany’s musical intelligence, heard in his playing as well as in the deep spiritualism of his compositions, which are often called “soulful”; Carlos Salzedo’s vision; and Nicolas Bochsa’s romantic rendition of the repertoire. What characterizes Xavier de Maister among this distinguished roster?

First, he enthusiastically seeks to share his passion for the harp with the largest possible public and to give the harp much greater prominence in the classical music scene. Second, he proudly champions a little-known repertoire that is extremely rich in colors and extraordinary sounds. Third he commissions pieces by contemporary composers. Mr. de Maistre dominates the contemporary musical scene with his sound, his musical freedom, his rhythmic energy, his flexibility in attacking the strings. All these qualities, together with the obvious joy he takes in playing, help him promote his mission.

He played for one evening only, at St Maron church, making this the second consecutive season that Mr. de Maistre has performed in the Lebanese capital Beirut. The concert had no special theme, as often is the case in his concerts abroad; rather it was a “calling card.” He played Glinka’s three “Variations on a theme from Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberflöte,’” each with its own clear and distinct rhythmic nature. He followed this with Glinka’s “Nocturne in E flat major,” which features a lovely melody and a serene mood. Then came Lizst’s “Le Rossignol,” itself a transcription of a song by Alexander Alabiev; here the harpist quavered distressingly in this arrangement by Henriette Renié, that de Maistre recorded on a 1999 disc. But the program also featured several longer transcriptions that have become very popular, such as “The Moldau” by Smetana, the “Fantasy on a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Opera ‘Eugene Onegin’” for harp, and Debussy’s “Two Arabesques.” This is a journey in which de Maistre invites listeners to discover the sonic palette of his instrument and his decidedly orchestral conception of it.

The Khatchatourian toccata for harp, with knocking and tapping on the instrument frame and some very unusual timbres that one might not expect from the Western orchestral harp, suggests some interesting techniques. The “Danse Orientale” is a mini Bolero with the same melody repeated again and again, always in a different color as if it were being played on a different instrument.

Mr. de Maistre was at his best in the Tchaikovsky, achieving lilt and romance by delicate phrasing. The waltz passages in “Onegin” came through nicely accented, and this was the first work in the program to make use of large numbers of arpeggios – the rippling sounds that we naturally associate with the harp.

Fauré’s “Impromptu” requires quick moves to cut off reverberations and long grips toward the front of the instrument, with each foot operating the pedals in order to alter the pitch of the strings by one semitone at a time. This particular challenge became obvious only on those few occasions when it wasn’t met by Mr. de Maistre.

There are very many different textures in “Vltava” as arranged for harp, and there are some points where obviously he has taken a slightly freer approach to the music, reinventing it and spreading out Smetana’s original held chords into shimmering arpeggios to suit his instrument.

Debussy’s “Two Arabesques” offer luscious music, providing a most luminous listening experience as heard through Mr. de Maistre’s harp. He renders this music with a jewel-like clarity and a tenderness seldom achieved by the piano solo version.

Mr. de Maistre’s desire to live in the moment and communicate with his public was evident throughout his virtuosic interpretation of these works. He placed his harp and its rich sound palette, along with every technical means in his possession, in the service of the music. Will Mr. de Maistre be able to fulfill his mission? We await the answer.