The Harp Column, August 2002

Available from Naxos

“Elizabeth Hainen’s debut CD is a winner.”

—Darin Kelly, The Harp Column, August 2002

For as long as anyone can remember, much has been made in the orchestral world of the famed “Philadelphia sound,” the dark, rich, and (my personal favorite) lush, string-heavy timbre made most famous by the fifteen thousand or so recordings made between 1960 and 1980 by The Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. In addition to defining the paradigm of American orchestral performance practice, the orchestra became one of the perhaps three instantly recognizable ensembles on disc. Of course, those of us who are familiar with the orchestra’s long-time home, the Academy of Music, understand the origins and the development of their beefed-up string section: The acoustics there were about as warm and resonant as those of a good-sized carpet store. So it seems altogether fitting that the playing on Philadelphia Orchestra principal harpist’s Elizabeth Hainen’s Music for Solo Harp is suggestive of a larger ensemble. Perhaps to the credit – or detriment – of producers and engineers, solo harp recordings often seem to have an overly-present quality, leaning toward brighter timbres and crisp articulation. But Hainen’s offering is indeed reminiscent of the Philadelphians’ legendary and eponymous sound: Warm, broad, and yes, lush.

Appropriately enough, Hainen leads off the album with an old Philly favorite, the third of Liszt’s three Liebesträume, here transcribed by Henriette Renie. Hainen shows admirable restraint and exemplary musicality in her tasteful rendition of what has become largely a Liberacean confection for many pianists. And indeed, there is something about her sound that sets her apart from most soloists and even other orchestral harpists.

Hainen displays her near-perfect blend of drama and taste throughout many harp masterworks on the disc (Rosetti’s Sonata No. 2 and the famous solo from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor), but by far the most compelling material on the album are the lesser-known works by Hugo Reinhold, Wilhelm Posse, and Elias Parish Alvars. On Reinhold’s Impromptu, Hainen displays a feather-light touch throughout the lightning flashes of trills and arpeggios that sandwich a lovely cantabile section. The German harpist Posse’s second and seventh etudes are attractive pieces in their own right, each with well-constructed melodic material, written in an obviously appropriate harpistic idiom. Especially fascinating is Alvars’ Serenade, with a hypnotic use of harmonics that perfectly mimic pianistic attack and decay. Alvars played an important role in the advancement of the modern double-action pedal harp, and it is a pity that his work is not more well-known among the general public. The piece, especially given Hainen’s treatment of it, certainly should be in the pantheon of solo harp works, and could most definitely hold its own amid the most famous solo piano works by Rachmaninoff and Chopin.

Especially interesting for a Philadelphia Orchestra aficionado is how Hainen’s playing reflects the present soundscape of a group once known primarily for its reading of Romantic works: Her playing is as expansive as it is lean, as flashy as it is reserved, and as technical as it is expressive. Indeed, the cognoscenti will tell you, accurately, that the Philadelphians have never sounded better. A most impressive crop of new principals have, in their brand-new concert hall, shown that the band still leads the pack in its ability to blend, dazzle, and alter its style as the music dictates.

Elizabeth Hainen is a wonderful embodiment of the “new” Philadelphia sound and a perfect example of how the best musicians can make their instruments become a symphony orchestra, even on their own – Darin Kelly

The Harp Column

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