If yesterday’s young harpist’s concert here in Gstaad was about variety, today’s harpist, Alexander Boldachev, presented a programme firmly rooted in the Russian Romantics – with the twist that Boldachev is also a composer and played some of his own works and arrangements. As well as being a fine musician, he also proved to be an amiable host: he was articulate in introducing the items on the programme, and clearly knows how to work a crowd.

Alexander Boldachev © Miguel Bueno
Alexander Boldachev
© Miguel Bueno

The romantic theme (with both small and large R) was set by the warm up piece, a Glinka nocturne and one of only two pieces on the programme composed for harp from their outset. After a touch of uncertainty, Boldachev settled into the lush phrasing of the piece, with broken chords or runs of harmonics in the left hand and a variety of playing styles in the right.

The concert came to life in the second piece: an arrangement of the “Morning serenade” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, arranged by Vera Dulova, who was a revered principal harpist of the Bolshoi Theatre. The music was simply thrilling: a bell like beginning accelerates into tingling cascades of notes, and an extraordinary amount of the orchestral detail was transformed in a way that was totally unfamiliar (being for solo harp) but full of interest, since here is an instrument that can play so many different timbres.

“Il vecchio castello”, arranged from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, was less successful. Although the ground bass of the piece transcribes well to the harp and there are some nice arpeggiated chords, the lack of sustain in the top of the instrument makes it difficult to maintain Mussorgsky’s melodic line.

The first of Boldachev’s own compositions was a fantasy on Anton Rubinstein’s little performed opera The Demon – rather in the manner of Liszt’s opera “reminiscences”, this sought to give the listener a flavour of the original opera while serving as a technical showpiece. Boldachev uses a slew of effects, some of which other harpists haven’t even thought of, since he is a harpist/composer who is continually experimenting. There are two fingered glissandi where a staccato effect is achieved by one finger stopping the strings just played by the other, bending of notes by pressing the string next to its tuning peg, notes played by sliding the hand along bass strings, strumming, single finger tremolos and more. What’s impressive is that these effects are not cleverness for its own sake: they work along with more ordinary shifts in dynamics and phrasing  to give shape and colour to the music.

After an excursion into unfamiliar contemporary territory with Ivan Fedele’s Passacaglia, filled with quiet discords, echoes and ripples, Boldachev returned to the safety of mother Russia with his fantasy on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheharazade. Here, the harpist’s armoury of tricks was married to Rimsky’s well loved melodies, and it worked like a charm: Boldachev was continually hinting at the original orchestration without necessarily being enslaved to it, and his command of phrasing brought us (with no orchestra to help) the full vibrancy and brilliance of this highly popular work.

Boldachev had talked about the Russian character being hard to understand and that this concert was an exploration of the Russian soul. To end with, we were treated to a trio of Russian waltzes of utterly different characters: one romantic (Groboedov), one mimicking a music box (Lyadov), and one depicting a snowstorm (Sviridov). All three were musically different, all three were delicacies to whet the ear, and all three were unmistakably Russian. While I certainly don’t understand what the Russian character is, and I’m not sure to what extent Boldachev does, he’s having a lot of fun exploring it, and that made for a highly entertaining concert.