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Surprisingly Brilliant Harp Transcriptions by Magen


Under the auspices of Pro Musicis, harpist Sivan Magen gave a stunning recital at Longy School of Music on Saturday evening, April 2. I have heard Magen six times, including with singers and other instrumentalists at Marlboro, and have been awed each time. He is a brilliant musician, able to execute whatever he wants on the harp, making it all look effortless. The first Israeli to have won the ultra-prestigous Israel Harp Competition five years ago, Magen has toured with Musicians from Marlboro and, in 2007, was a founding member of the Israeli Chamber Project (he can be seen on YouTube with them; very much worth hearing).

Harp recitals that feature only harp music can be dreadful affairs, even in the best of hands. But transcriptions are dicey affairs as well; some music is simply not meant to be played on the harp. Happily, I can report that the transcriptions Magen played were, for me, the highlights of the program, and were unusually impressive, at least in his hands.

He immediately captivated the audience with his sense of drama and musicality in Paul Ben-Haim’s Poème, a strikingly dramatic piece written for the first Israel Harp Competition in 1959. Magen continued with his arrangement of J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816. I had heard several of its movements on the harp before and decided this was not at all suited for the instrument. Partita I, yes; this Suite, NO. Yet, from the moment the Allemande began, all I could think of was how wonderfully it sounded, how natural and right. The fast movements — the Courante, Gavotte, and Gigue — were dazzling. The lines were clear, the left hand had a life of its own, no pedal noises or buzzing, just perfection. The slow movements had beautiful, tasteful ornamentation. This was the playing of a great musician who happened to be a harpist. I was in awe.

Marcel Grandjany’s arrangement of Bach’s Fugue (Allegro) from Sonata No. 1 for Unaccompanied Violin in g minor, BWV 1001 is one of the trickiest pieces to pull off on the harp, but in Magen’s hands it was brilliant. He has an unusual palate of dynamics, from ghostly pianissimos to thrilling fortes that are still a thing of beauty. I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes a good — or great — transcription or arrangement, and I have, in a nutshell, decided that a good harp transcription should not sound like a poor stepchild to the original. And, while it’s being performed, one should be able to sustain the illusion that this is how it’s meant to sound, if not better than the original, than no lesser. Bach actually liked this piece so much that he himself transcribed it for both organ (BWV 539) and lute (BWV 1000).

Grandjany, who taught many great harpists at the Julliard School from 1938-1975 (one of his students was Nancy Allen, who was Sivan’s teacher, and who also won a Pro Musicis Award in 1982) also composed for harp. Here he was represented by his popular, ultra-romantic Rhapsodie for Harp, dedicated to his teacher, the great French harpist and composer, Henriette Renié. This seems to be one of those polarizing pieces that harpists love or really don’t care for. It’s a big competition piece, with all the usual harp tricks. The Fauré Impromptu followed this, sounding somewhat similar, and while he played it very well, I wish he had played something a tad less familiar. Anyone who’s gone through music school had to play this piece; but of course, few played it with such mastery as he did here.

Of the three of Brahms’s Intermezzos (1892-1893) Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 116, No. 2, Intermezzo in E-flat major, Op. 117, No. 1 and Intermezzo in B-flat minor, Op. 117, No. 2, the Op 117, No 1, whose beautiful melody began as a Scottish lullaby, was lovely, but the other two were deeply impressive, marvels of musicianship and brilliant harp playing.

The final programmed piece, Renié’s Ballade Fantastique, after E.A. Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1913), is a notoriously difficult work. I have never heard it performed live. At this point in the evening, no one was surprised by Magen’s manifold gifts —exquisite timing, beautiful harmonics, singing melodies, glissandi that were full of colors.

Happily, Magen did a short but gorgeous encore, Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 17, No. 4. It was pure magic. Jaws of harpists throughout the audience dropped. No one had ever heard this on the harp, or had heard the harp played so well in a very long time.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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