In the popular imagination, the harp is often associated with angels and female musicians, but the harp’s latest international champion, Xavier de Maistre, calls to mind an ancient lineage from Apollo to King David and the bards. Not that Melbourne audiences are unfamiliar with the virtuosity of male harpists; Huw Jones was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Harpist from 1966 until 1993and Marshall McGuire continues to charm us. On disc, the Welsh harpist Osian Ellis has also played an important role in bringing harp music to a wider Australian public.
As Artistic Director of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Paul Dyer has persuaded a number of leading international musicians to join his renowned ensemble for innovative programs. We are fortunate that his tireless enthusiasm and musical accomplishments enticed Xavier de Maistre to fit Australia into his busy schedule. Since leaving his position with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to pursue a career as a soloist, Maistre has been in high demand. One of his most recent engagements has been inspiring the young musicians of Suzhou with another Melbourne harpist, Jessica Todd, who is based there.
Both Maistre and Dyer seem undaunted by a challenge; several boundaries were pushed in this concert with a variety of arrangements. Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunteprovided a bridge between a sprightly account of CPE Bach’s Symphony No. 1 and a series of pieces arranged for solo harp, beginning with Manuel de Falla’s Spanish Dance from La Vida Breve. As Dyer pointed out, it was the first time that the Ravel had ever been performed on period instruments in Australia. It certainly took some courage to have the suave opening melody played on natural horns. Happily, the skill of the players negotiated the pitfalls pretty well. Somewhat ironically, the harp that Ravel had included in his orchestrated version was not included in this performance.
Although this transition between centuries still came as something of a jolt to my ears, Ravel’s haunting work and the high standard of the playing made a persuasive case for its inclusion. The person sitting next to me had never heard the work before and was totally enthralled – another reminder that trotting out repertoire that might seem overly familiar to regular concert and opera goers enables exciting discoveries for others. It is heartening to see the enthusiasm of young people and those much less familiar with standard repertoire.
Possibly, mainly harpists and harp enthusiasts would have been familiar with the second item on the program: Boieldieu’s Harp Concerto in C Major, but this attractive work with its song-like drama provided an effective introduction to Maistre’s musicianship and technical virtuosity. It is a substantial composition designed to display the harp to best advantage by providing a very light orchestral accompaniment that often drops out completely.
Playing a harp borrowed from the Opera Australia Orchestra and wearing simple black shirt and trousers, Maistre presented as very much a part of the ensemble. Although matinee idol good looks did add to his undoubted charisma, it was the authority of his playing and his ability to find shades of colour that impressed. Further textures and colours were revealed in his arrangements of the Falla, Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambraand Smetana’s Vltava(The Moldau). Glissandi were brought off with panache in the Falla and Tárrega’s popular guitar piece with its distinctive tremolo transferred convincingly to the harp. Without any knowledge of the programmatic nature of the piece, it was immediately obvious that Smetana was describing a river; Maistre’s playing flowed and surged in a perfectly calibrated cascade of notes that built momentum and depth as the music developed. His encore piece of variations on the folk tune Carnival of Venicewas an exhilarating display of virtuosity.
It may have been a little odd to have a program as clearly divided into orchestral and solo parts, but it gave listeners an opportunity to hear a wide range of harp music from a master of his craft. The queue lined up to buy discs and have them signed at the end of the concert suggested a surge in the numbers of harp enthusiasts. The orchestra itself may well have found new devotees, captivated by the fine ensemble work and some particularly beautiful flute and string playing.
Reviewer Heather Leviston heard harpist Xavier de Maistre with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre on May 12, 2018.