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If you thought that an hour’s worth of music played by four harps might be a rather monochrome listening experience or struggled to think of repertoire that such an ensemble might perform, then this is the recording to change your mind and enlighten you. The Adria Harp Quartet were formed in 2012 with the specific aim of commissioning, interpreting and recording new works for harp ensemble by contemporary Italian composers, and this Tactus disc presents seven such compositions, in which harps are heard alone, in ensemble and interacting with flute and electronic musical elements.

I have to confess that few of the composers whose work this disc comprises were known to me. According to Giordano Montecchi’s liner note (presented in Italian and English), the two works by Massimiliano Messieri, Hot Springs II and Land (both written in 2014) explore the same basic musical idea, with its roots in diverse ancient cultures from Greece to Arabia: a tetrachord with an augmented second at its centre. In Hot Springs II, this ‘eastern’ motif is first articulated with finely etched clarity by a single harp, and then repeated with growing percussive intensity, as the textures and tessitura deepen and expand. The rhythmic propulsion and the spirit of dance are compelling. Land is more mystical, and the primary development of the motif is melodic rather than rhythmic. The repetitions and circling explorations are gentle at first, somewhat tentative, but grow in conviction and accrue a surprising inner force, before retreating into quietude. Messieri’s quasi-minimalist musical language is eloquent and has a numinous quality that is both stimulating and soothing.

Echi della notte (2014) by Mario Pagotto begins in altogether more violent fashion conjuring an explosive night-world of primitive drum-beats, resonating booms and sparks of fire. There is audible order to the anarchy though. Nascent rhythmic and melodic patterns emerge, bringing brightness into to the darkness and though they are for a time re-consumed into vast echoing chambers of sound, it is with the delicate light of dawn that the work concludes. Francesco Pavan’s Isle.4 (2014) similarly exploits the sheer power of the instrument and ensemble, offering imposing masses of resounding sound which are subsequently countered by more ethereal, shimmering evocations in the very uppermost register. From these heights, splinters of glass seem to shatter with a piercing sharpness that almost makes one flinch, and the sense of menace grows with the addition of percussive crashes, eerie flute calls and sundry strange sounds. The arpeggio flourish with which the piece concludes is quite a relief!

Montecchi explains that Hosiu, the title of Claudio Scannavini’s composition (2014), stems from ancient Egypt and means ‘fascination of the eye’ and ‘enchantment’, though one online dictionary suggests that it is the Southern Sotho word for the period between sunset and sunrise. Whatever, Scannavini conjures a sparkling restlessness, as dancing, swirling motifs form a glittering tapestry. The runs and cascades become increasingly high-spirited, growing in rhythmic drive and sweeping expanse: Scannavini’s paradoxical description Meccanico evocativo (Evocative mechanical) seems apt. The coloristic diversity is at times reminiscent of French impressionism, an influence which is also felt in Carlo Tenan’s beautiful Jeux de bleu (2016) with its majestic and flamboyant opening arpeggio arc, glistening oscillations and delicate traceries. One can’t help but detect the presence of Debussy’s La Mer or Ravel’s Jeux d’eau.

In Awakening (2014), Nicola Baroni looks forward rather than back. This is an ‘interactive’ work which unfolds in real time and is thus different each time it is performed. Baroni provides the instrumentalists with ‘instructions of single notes and arpeggios and software interacts with the musicians and the live-electronics system’. The quartet is divided into two complementary pairs: two ‘composers’, who create the sounds which the software turns into a score, and two ‘performers’ who play the resulting music which ‘flows into the live-electronics system [and] is then edited by the two “composers”’. The result is certainly other-worldly, sometimes disturbing in its intimation of unknowable, uncontrollable, infinite variety. I was put in mind of Caliban’s isle full of ‘noises’ and ‘sounds’, both ‘sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’ and ‘a thousand twangling instruments’.

In his liner note, Montecchi makes the rather florid claim that ‘No other instrument but the harp reminds us so strongly of inscrutable prehistories, remote civilisations and ancestral mythologies’. Well, perhaps … but Montecchi is right to note the extraordinary versatility and timbral variety of the harp, and the composers represented here have certainly exploited every imaginable aural possibility, often surprising with the inventiveness and originality of texture, colour and tone. The Adria Harp Quartet serve this new music, and their instrument, admirably.

Claire Seymour

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