on 7 March 2012
Elias Parish Alvars was an English harpist and composer born, as Eli Parish, in Teignmouth, Devon in 1808. He was very highly regarded in his time. Berlioz called him the "Liszt of the harp" writing that "one could not have imagined all the graceful or energetic effects, the strokes of originality or the unheard-of sonorities he managed to achieve on his instrument". A key figure in the history of the harp, Parish Alvars was able to exploit the enormous improvements to the instrument that had been introduced by Sebastien Erard at the end of the 18th century. The harp had now become a full chromatic instrument, able to play in most keys.
Parish Alvars' music on these discs is essentially late Classical in style. As a performer/composer he wrote virtuoso music designed to show off his technique. There is a lot of rather vacuous passage work in the manner of the time, then, but the thematic material is strong. The E flat concerto Op. 98 has a rhetorical opening which is obviously designed to impress but whose material is obviously not suited to the harp. The subsidiary orchestral idea is attractive, however, as is a tune which is reserved for the soloist but neither developed nor brought back in the recapitulation. The development section is largely built on the main subsidiary idea.
The ternary slow movement is highly attractive although its theme is a little too plain to be truly memorable.
The finale is somewhat haphazardly constructed. At first it seems as though it's going to be a rondo but a 2 1/2 minute cadenza (by Bernard Galais) which refers to the main lyrical idea from the first movement arrives earlier than you'd expect and a subsequent episode contains a fugato built on the finale's main subsidiary idea. A new idea then arrives but the movement's main theme does not return. It's not a satisfying movement but it is enjoyable enough.
Very much the highlight of these two discs is the Concertino in D minor for two harps (or, as here, harp and piano) Op. 91. Its sound world is just as attractive as you hope it will be. In spite of its title, it is a substantial (nearly 22 minute) work. Presumably Parish Alvars didn't call it a concerto because the first movement uses an abbreviated version of sonata form. Its second subject is particularly attractive. The end-of-exposition tutti arrives in the expected key (F major) but then diverts to B flat major for the slow movement which follows without a break. This movement has a particularly lovely coda. The tightly written finale is the best movement, however. Its main theme takes its cue from the finale of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 and the subsidiary strutting tune is undeniably catchy. Altogether, this concertino is irresistible.
The Fantasia Op.39 for piano and harp alone is also highly enjoyable. As usual it is the fast music which is more characterful and memorable. After the melodramatic opening there is a slow section with a number of highly ornamented ideas before the harp, and then the piano, introduce a sprightly tune which sounds as though it's stepped out of an Italian opera of the period. This tune is subjected to variation treatment. A number of other strong ideas are introduced and developed before this most entertaining work comes to a close.
These are old-fashioned big band performances, excellent of their sort. They are well recorded, the balance problems being completely solved.
The other disc may be regarded as a bonus. The highlight is, of course, Handel's familiar concerto but the Vivaldi concerto (a transcription) is a good one; there is a lovely slow movement. Petrini's "Symphony with Harp No. 3" (it's not a concerto) has an important part for flute. There is a mellifluous "grazioso" minuet and a rondo finale with a catchy main theme. Both the first movement and the finale of Zach's concerto have strong main ideas. Haydn's concerto is more advanced stylistically than the other works. It is a transcription of a work for keyboard. Haydn was not at his best in his concertos and this one, although enjoyable enough, is not to be ranked alongside any of Mozart's, of course.
These discs can be recommended, then, in particular for Parish Alvars' Concertino.