Karen Gottlieb: Music for Harp

Is there a lovelier-sounding instrument than the harp? Others can certainly sound pretty, yet none can match the string instrument's velvety timbres nor evoke celestial associations with such immediacy. But Music for Harp isn't only a showcase for Karen Gottlieb's sparkling sound (though it is that); it's also a tribute album featuring mid-twentieth century classical works by composers from the San Francisco Bay Area. If anyone's qualified to tackle the project, it's Gottlieb: she's been with the San Francisco Symphony for more than two decades and regularly performs with a number of Northern California new music groups; in addition, her relationship with Lou Harrison (1917-2003), two of whose works bookend the hour-long recording, extends back to 1980. She's presented many of his works over the years, including Music for Harp, which she recorded in 1994 as the soundtrack for Building A Dream, a documentary about the design and construction of a home by her architect mother, Lois Davidson Gottlieb.

Along with Harrison's two pieces, the album features Colloquy for Flute and Harp by Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Wayne Peterson, John Cage's 1948 composition In a Landscape, and Sonata for Flute and Harp by composer-cellist Dan Reiter. Adding to the project's appeal, the pieces feature the harp alone or with one other instrument, be it cello (Dan Reiter), flute (Tod Brody), or percussion (William Winant and Daniel Kennedy). The album concept might be rooted in the Bay Area, but, in keeping with a harpist who grew up in India and Europe, its music ranges far beyond American shores: Native American and Asian elements surface in Harrison's material, for example, while motifs from Afghanistan and India emerge within Reiter's composition (Reiter, incidentally, studied Indian classical music with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan).

Inspired by the Lascaux, France cave paintings, Harrison's Suite For Cello And Harp (1949) inaugurates the recording on a particularly appealing note with a plaintive chorale rendered (twice) with delicacy and feeling by Gottlieb and cellist Reiter. The meditative “Aria” blossoms with slow-motion elegance, the harp's ascending patterns an effective counterpoint to the cello's long tones; more spirited by comparison is the outdoorsy “Pastorale,” the “East-meets-West” character of the composer emerging in the cello's hypnotic undulations.

Peterson's Colloquy for Flute and Harp (1999) unfolds as an impressionistic dialogue between the flute and harp, the two instruments united in their quest as they undertake a free-floating exploration encompassing both reflective and animated passages and distinguished by bold dynamic contrasts and extended techniques. So much attention is devoted to 4'33” and Silence, it's easy to forget how strong a composer John Cage (1912-1992) could be when he put pen to paper. In a Landscape, an ethereal and lyrical setting scored for dancer Louise Lippold, presents a particularly strong argument in support of his composing gifts, and its entrancing mystical character proves especially powerful when performed by Gottlieb alone. The enigmatic mystery evoked by Peterson's piece re-emerges in Reiter's Sonata for Flute and Harp (1982), a similarly evocative setting that, like Peterson's, is twelve minutes long. Here too we're in the presence of an intense series of interactions between the instruments, the two at times circling around each other cautiously and seemingly locked in battle elsewhere.

Closing out the recording is Music for Harp with Percussion (1967-1977), whose component parts Harrison created for the troubadour harp (without pedals) and are realized by Gottlieb for this recording using ‘well-tempered' tunings. Initially composed for guitar, the pretty “Serenade” appears twice, the first recorded in 1994 and the second in 2014, and introduces the set featuring harp alone. Following that intro are: the bright, dance-like “Jahla,” the harp this time accompanied by finger cymbals and tambourine in an ostinato pattern; the Indonesian-flavoured “Sonata in Ishartum”; and “Beverly's Troubadour Music,” a kindred piece to “Jahla” in its incorporation of finger cymbals, rattle tambourine, and bongos. A dance character surfaces once again during “Avalokiteshvara” when Gottlieb's animated patterns are mirrored by the pitter-patter of specially tuned water bowls. Not only is Music for Harp a strong showcase for Gottlieb, it's obviously as strong in its presentation of the four composers' works.

February 2016