Bach on the Harp

Some people hear music through the strangest of portals. There are opera lovers who love only one voice, and they will love any music that voice sings. And there are orchestra fanatics who can’t abide solo recitals or chamber music or–heaven forbid–an evening at the opera. But the oddest of these single-minded creatures are the music lovers who specialize in one instrument. The flute is the Alpha and Omega. And thus, the Vaughn Williams Tuba concerto is a lovely piece… if played on a flute. And only on a flute.

I wish I could say nicer things about Catrin Finchs new recording of the Bach Goldberg variations on Deutsche Grammophon. She is certainly a fine musician. And it’s an ambitious recording. Before she could even think of going into the studio, Finch had to transcribe the entire piece. And there’s the problem. Finch is a harpist.

Nothing against the harp, I assure you. The end of Das Rheingold (scored for six harps, playing what is, according to harpists, really, really badly written harp music) wouldn’t be the same without it. But the harp isn’t the ideal instrument for the Goldbergs.

The harp, like the harpsichord, is a plucked instrument. Unlike the harpsichord, which can only pluck the string with a single degree of force (thus resulting in a limited dynamic range), the harpist can pluck with varying degrees of force, and introduce nuances of expression into the line. But every string must be damped individually, and there’s a tendency throughout Finch’s Bach to let them ring too long. The result is muddy, a bit like a pianist playing with a sloppy pedal technique.

If you love the harp, Finch has no doubt made a noble effort. If you don’t love the harp—and I mean love the harp—the texture grows monotonous and the constant soupiness of the instrument wearisome. That brings us to an important question: Was there ever a need to transcribe the Goldberg Variations for harp in the first place?

We enter strange territory here. For serious harp lovers, who see the world only through harp-colored glasses, there is an unending need for new harp music. It’s like living in a world in which you can read only Linear B. Until someone translates “War and Peace” into Linear B, you’re S.O.L.

For the rest of us, there is already a delicious abundance of recordings of the Goldberg Variations on instruments much better suited to the music, including the piano and harpsichord. Translating it for the harp is a stunt, but not quite funny enough to rise to the level of party disk (see Florence Foster Jenkins).

Transcription needs to be better theorized. First, let’s divide transcription into those which are essentially variations, such as the great opera fantasies written for the piano (Liszt, Thalberg, and co.) in the 19th century. These are unique and individual compositions, and a very different thing from the second category: Transcriptions that are essentially translations. These emphasize the illusion of a seamless fit, as music is moved from one instrument to another. Clarinet sonatas transcribed for harmonica, etc. These must be criticized on a case by case basis.

Some recent efforts to play French harpsichord music on the piano, for instance, work rather well. Alexandre Tharaud makes harpsichord music by Couperin sound very convincing on the piano, but he’s an intelligent musician who knows how to finesse expressive pianistic analogues for the harpsichord’s more formal language of ornamentation. But I would never recommend these interpretations anyone unfamiliar with the music, because too much is lost. And generally it takes a heroic musician to overcome the general fact that one-for-one transcriptions produce bad music.

Alas, even though they amuse at first, Finch’s transcription don’t offer much new insight on the Goldbergs. The best she can do is make her Bach sound almost as good as it would sound on a harpsichord or piano. It’s an illusionist’s trick to present Bach on the harp, except the illusion fails when you start looking for the contrapuntal clarity. It reminds me of Marion Cotillard lip-synching to Jil Aigrot’s phenomenal imitation of the voice of Edith Piaf in “Ma Vie en Rose.” It’s a remarkable sleight of hand, and you’re impressed by how well it works… up to a point. But if you want to hear Piaf, then put on Piaf. The same thing with the Goldbergs. And if you must listen to the Goldberg Variations transcribed, then try Glenn Gould.

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2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Music

2 responses to “Bach on the Harp

  1. As a harp fan and unashamedly guilty of wearing harp colored glasses (what are you implying – that there are other tints!), nonetheless I have to agree that this transcription has not worked.

  2. Harpist

    Typical dissmisive, conservative critique.
    Today, in the 21st Century, we are actually arguing about transcriptions? Why on earth can Ms Finch not play whatever she wants? Who is to say what kind of music we should or should not play or listen to?
    We can discuss whether Ms Finch plays nicely or not, that is another matter….
    But I suggest you listen to the French harpist Sylvain Blassel and maybe you will rethink your views.
    P.S. you can see & hear him on youtube.

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