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I've always loved harp music, but had never heard of French harpist Xavier De Maistre until last year, when I was on the hunt for a recording of Debussy's 'Danse Profane' to download. Sifting through all the different recordings on Spotify, the one that stood out head and shoulders above the rest was the Wiener Philharmoniker's version, not least because of the superb, expressive harp playing by one Xavier De Maistre. The track was from his album 'Debussy, Nuit d'étoiles', released by RCA Red Seal. I headed straight to Amazon to download the track, but on seeing it would cost over £1 to download, I decided to buy the whole album for just over £5.
Buying an album based on 1 track is a risky business, but in this case I was really glad I did. The album features some of Debussy's most beautiful music, predominantly arranged for the harp (by De Maistre himself), although the 7 'Mélodies' also feature soprano Diana Damrau, and the 'Danses for Harp and Strings' are full orchestral arrangements.
The track listing is as follows:
1. Suite Bergamasque: Prélude
2. Suite Bergamasque: Menuet
3. Suite Bergamasque: Clair de Lune
4. Suite Bergamasque: Passepied
6. Valse Romantique
7. Mélodies: Nuit d'Etoiles
8. Mélodies: Le Lilas
9. Mélodies: Fleur des Blés
10. Mélodies: Clair de Lune
11. Mélodies: Mandoline
12. Mélodies: Beau Soir
13. Mélodies: Apparition
14. Arabesque No. 1 in E Major
15. Arabesque No. 2 in G Major
16. Préludes: Danseuses de Delphe
17. Préludes: Voiles
18. Préludes: La Fille aux cheveux de Lin
19. Danses for Harp and Strings: Danses Sacrée
20. Danses for Harp and Strings: Danse Profane
So how does Debussy's music translate to the harp? Surprisingly well, actually. As much of the music was written for the piano, it's not a great stretch of the imagination to hear it played on the harp, and I was amazed at how much power and expression could be conveyed through this stereotypically angelic instrument. At the same time, the Suite Bergamasque gained a mysterious, dreamlike quality through the instrument, which brought a fresh enchantment to some very familiar pieces.
The Mélodies are flawlessly sung by Diana Damrau, whose voice complements De Maistre's playing, so that the two blend together. The songs also provide a change from the solo harp music which surrounds them, although the solo pieces are so well performed that it's easy to forget it's just a single man making all that fantastic music!
By the end of the album, however, I was certainly ready for a change- you can, after all, have too much of a good thing, and despite De Maistre's expertise and the beauty of the music, the orchestral Danses were a very welcome change. The wonderful arrangements of the previous pieces mean that they're not sickly sweet, as you might expect from an album of pure harp music, but still, hearing the full orchestra provides that richer, more solid sound that you can really sink your teeth into. De Maistre's playing is, however, still very clear over the orchestra, and again, the sounds blend very well together.
I love this album, and although the Danse Profane at the end is the still the highlight for me, it was well worth buying the other tracks too. I'm not saying that these arrangements are replacements for the originals- Debussy didn't intend them for the harp, after all- but De Maistre has done a worthy job in his arrangements which bring out different aspects in the music, and I think that most Debussy fans will appreciate these new interpretations. Of course, you have to like harp music to enjoy this album, and even then be in the right mood to listen to it, but it's well worth having for those times when you want to close your eyes and be transported away to a serene, ethereal place.
Current download price (on Amazon): £7.49