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Heavenly harping

Last year offered memorable collections of an underappreciated instrument


Zabaleta performs in 1964. Giorgio Lotti/Mondadori via Getty Images

Heavenly harping
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Perhaps the instrument that benefited the most from 2020’s plethora of classical-music releases was the harp—the very instrument (or a close relative thereof) identified in Revelation 5 as standard equipment of the four beasts and the four-and-twenty elders who fall down in worship before the Lamb.

So if it’s a foretaste of glory divine you crave, the cream of the 2020 harp crop is for you.

At the top of the list has to be The Art of Nicanor Zabaleta (UMG), a 68-track streaming-only affair that makes clear why many consider Zabaleta, who died in 1993 at age 86, the preeminent harpist of the 20th century.

It’s hard to say which was more refined, Zabaleta’s taste or his touch. In addition to his fondness for Bach, Mozart, and Handel, The Art of Nicanor Zabaleta also showcases the Spanish virtuoso’s intimate familiarity with and affection for such under-recorded composers as François Adrien Boieldieu, Germaine Tailleferre, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and Ernesto Halffter.

Yet, incredible though it may seem, the collection could’ve been better. By drawing exclusively on Zabaleta’s many recordings for the Deutsche Grammophon label, it bypasses entirely what may have been his crowning achievement: his 1968 album for Arkiv Produktion, Hispaniae Musica: Spanische Harfenmusik Des 16. Und 17. Jahrhunderts. Long out of print but still available from used-vinyl merchants, it evokes the Spanish Renaissance with a vivacity verging on the enchanted.

One 2020 album that captures a similar feeling is Un’Arpa Straordinaria: Italian Music of the 17th Century for Double Harp by the five-member Das kleine Kollektive (Ars Produktion). Featuring the harpist Vera Schnider, the violinist Eva Saladin, the soprano Lina López (on six songs), and a repertoire all but lost to posterity, the 16 selections come impressively close to doing for the Italian Renaissance what Zabaleta did for Spain’s.

Julia Wacker, Petra Auer, and the Galatea Quartett’s Edgar Allan Poe und Die Harfe (Ars Produktion), on the other hand, inhabits a world of its own. Hearing Auer read “Annabel Lee,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” in a harp-punctuated German so expressive that you can practically understand what she’s saying even if you can’t is an experience for which no amount of setup can provide adequate preparation. Wacker and the Quartett also play contemporary works to balance the dreamy and the macabre.

John Thomas: Complete Duos for Piano and Harp, Volume One (Toccata Classics) by the Swiss mother-daughter team Duo Praxedis deserves special mention too. Not only does it contain first recordings (Thompson’s Souvenir du Nord, his transcriptions of works by Beethoven, Handel, Bizet, and Gounod), it also captures the elegantly vigorous symbiosis of the Praxedis’ musicality, which more often than not makes their two instruments sound like one.


Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.

@ArsenioOrteza

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Ann Marshall

Thank you so much for this wonderful article! You took the burden of finding suitable gifts for some friends right off my shoulders. I've honestly never understood people who complain that "heaven must be boring" because everyone is "just sitting around playing harps". Do they have any idea how difficult it is to tune a harp?! Or how completely wonderful it would be to master such an instrument AND always be in tune (I take it heavenly harps aren't subject to the vagaries of humidity and temperature)? I say Bring It!