Classical CD Reviews

Opera Fantaisie — BELLINI: Norma: Theme and Variations; TCHAIKOVSKY: Eugene Onegin: Fantasia; BIZET: Carmen: Paraphrase; MEHUL: Je Suis Encore dans mon Printemps: Variations; GOUNOD: Faust: Fantasia; OFFENBACH: Les Contes d’Hoffmann: Fantasia; DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor: Fantasia – Emmanuel Ceysson, harp – Naïve

The solo harp finds either a demon or an angel in Monsieur Ceysson’s accounts of “salon” arrangements of operas that may have electrified Paris in their time, but certainly astound us here and now.

Published on June 10, 2013

Opera Fantaisie = BELLINI: Norma: Theme and Variations; TCHAIKOVSKY: Eugene Onegin: Fantasia; BIZET: Carmen: Paraphrase; MEHUL: Je Suis Encore dans mon Printemps: Variations; GOUNOD: Faust: Fantasia; OFFENBACH: Les Contes d’Hoffmann: Fantasia; DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor: Fantasia – Emmanuel Ceysson, harp – Naïve V 5297, 65:22 (9/25/13) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Harp virtuoso Emmanuel Ceysson (b. 1984), much touted as “the enfant terrible” of his instrument, certainly impresses us in this series of operatic arrangements and “reminiscences” with his ability to provide a one-man orchestra of effects. Often, these transcriptions were intended as potpourris, concise syntheses of the most recognizable and popular tunes from operas to serve as vehicles for the performer, who appealed to the masses’ familiarity with the stage productions. Paris, particularly, relished in its salons the performers on various instruments who could reduce an operatic score into its most marketable format. At the same time, the various paraphrases, reminiscences, and fantasias allowed a gifted performer, ad libitum, to enhance any familiar tune with dazzling embroidery and harmonic audacities limited only by his innate talent and imagination.

Mr. Ceysson demonstrates every nuance and grand gesture of which his especial instrument is capable: the bell-tones from Albert Zabel’s Fantaisie on some motifs from the Opera Faust by Charles Gounod  provide a fascinating case in point.  Zabel (1834-1910) presents the harp both as an extension of the harpsichord or Renaissance lute, clearly an “aristocratic” sound; then, he exploits the harp’s bravura capacities to rival a shimmering string orchestra, rife with glissandos and strummed effects in quick alternation with staccato lines. In Ekaterina Walter Kuehne’s arrangement, Fantaisie on Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, the harp literally accompanies itself in the Act II Waltz. So, too, does the Zabel treatment memorialize the Gounod Waltz in a manner no less colorful than Liszt’s famed piano transcription. Almost every one of Ceysson’s extended runs or cadenzas sounds as though it were either lifted from or meant for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The more affecting aspect of the harp’s capacity to emote comes forth in Ceysson’s own arrangement of themes from Bizet’s Carmen, which includes the pathetic “Flower Song” of Don Jose, as he realizes the futility of his love for the elusive cigarette girl. The “vocal” aspect of the harp’s plaint shines no less brilliantly in the habanera, Carmen’s own sultry, even electrifying, admission of the fatality of her love.

Jean-Michel Damase (b. 1928) proffers a scintillating display of digital aerial effects in his Fantaisie sur des motifs des Contes d’Hoffmann by Offenbach, centered, of course, on the fluent barcarolle. The diaphanous harp under Ceysson’s fingers assumes the proportions of a majesterial guitar plied by an angelic troubadour. To call such playing “voluptuous” hardly begins to capture the sensuous aspect of Ceysson’s palette. The piece becomes a lively quadrille before our astonished ears, the harp’s substituting for what Eugene Ormandy demanded of the entire string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra for Gaite Parisienne. Elias Parish-Alvars (1808-1849) provides Ceysson with his spectacular finale: Fantaisie sur Lucia di Lammermoor, in which every bel canto element of the harp asserts itself, as it has in slightly more condensed form in the opening work, Parish-Alvar’s arrangement of themes from Bellini’s Norma. Ceysson has also a setting by Louis Spohr (1784-1859), Variations on a Mehul Aria, to display the elasticity and expressivity of his range of colors.

Recorded January 2012 at the Temple Manin, Paris, this recital has the sonorous benefit of balance and mixing engineered by Celine Grangey. Frankly, the prospect of having to audition over an hour’s worth of solo harp did not sit well in my imagination; but like many a “convert” to the religion of Monsieur (or  I should say Professor) Ceysson’s talented fingers, I confess to having been thoroughly enchanted by what has become a “demonstration record” of a prodigious talent.

—Gary Lemco




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