Anne Vanschothorst: Beautiful World

Anne Vanschothorst's 2014 album EK IS EIK (I Am Oak) featured the Dutch harpist collaborating on individual tracks with trumpet, viola da gamba, percussion, and bass players, an idea taken to a slightly further extreme on her latest, Beautiful World. Two of the players on the earlier release, bassist Thijs de Melker and percussionist Arthur Bont, return on the new set, this time joined by Michael Moore (clarinet), Jan Willem Troost (cello), and Rebecca Sier (vocals). Issued on Vanschothorst's own HSM label (Harp and Soul Music), the album presents eleven ‘harPoems' in a style she describes as meditative landscape music. In keeping with such a concept, the material is generally dreamlike in character, serene in mood, accessibly neoclassical in style, and enchanting in effect. It's, in short, an extremely pretty music that benefits greatly from the varied contributions of her guests.

As exemplified by the fifty-three-minute recording, the resplendent timbre of the harp enables it to blend particularly well with any number of instruments, whether it be a woodwind, cello, or the human voice. In the case of the three pieces on which Moore appears and the one featuring Sier, Vanschothorst assumes somewhat of a supporting role; on the tracks featuring percussionist Bont, on the other hand, his playing acts as support to her lead. Though the balance might shift from one track to another, the harp always provides a strong foundation that allows her guests to improvise freely, comfortable in the knowledge that the harp is there to solidly ground their extemporizations.

The beautiful sound produced by Vanschothorst's forty-seven-string instrument is on display throughout. In general, she favours an uncluttered style that for the most part eschews the kind of dazzling strums often associated with the harp for crystal-clear fingerpicking; it's an approach that also works well for the recording in allowing the others' contributions to be heard with maximum clarity. She and Moore inaugurate the album on a largely peaceful note with the wistful “All Is Well,” after which Bont's mini-arsenal of talking and hand drums shadows her every move during “My Heart Is Bending.” “Terra Incognita” sees de Melker on bass and organ accompanying Vanschothorst in a ponderous meditation that exudes some of the minimalistic spirit and grace of an Arvo Pärt setting. Though Troost's cello doesn't appear until seven tracks into the release, it's well worth the wait when his playing on “Lost Child,” “Indeed a Space Oddity,” and the stirring closer “Beautiful World” aligns so splendidly with Vanschothorst's. On “Why,” the meander of Sier's alluring vocal possesses a little bit of the quality of Susanna Wallumrød's singing, especially in the vulnerability of Sier's emotional expression. With de Melker also on board, the song stands out as the album's most memorable piece and its arguable high point.

Of course, the human voice being as powerful an instrument as it is, it hardly surprises that the piece would be so memorable; if anything, it's a shame Sier appears once only. As satisfying as it is, Beautiful World would have benefited from another song or two featuring the vocalist; in fact, the combination of harp and voice is so effective, Vanschothorst might want to consider producing an entire album of vocal-harp duets as her next release.

August 2017