Who would be a harpist? Your instrument is a nightmare to tune, it doesn’t fit into the average hotel lift, your long bass strings are susceptible to thwacking and buzzing if you hit a note too hard (or a composer may actually require you to do this as an effect), while your top strings have no sustain, so that you are required to play intricate clusters of notes at dizzying speed on an instrument where fluffs are clearly audible. Somehow, there are musicians happy to take up the challenge, as exemplified by Lithuanian Agné Keblyté, the first of six young harpists to give a one hour recital this week in Gstaad chapel.

Agné Keblyté © Miguel Bueno
Agné Keblyté
© Miguel Bueno

In the course of the recital, Keblyté explored a wide range of styles and playing techniques. The recital started with a fantasy by C.P.E Bach, to which Keblyté imparted much colour by variation of timbre and of dynamics. Because one is playing so many notes on the harp, there is also the possibility of varying details of the timing: here, Keblyté was less successful, with the occasional note going astray or phrase not quite flowing.

The centrepiece of the recital was Nicolas Flagello’s 1961 Sonata for Harp, a work that cuts to the chase. From the very first notes, we’re thrown into exciting pairs of broken chords, followed by some rapid fire playing full of interesting scales and harmonies. Here too was an exhibition of the variety of how the instrument can be played, from cascades of notes to delicate passages where a theme in one hand is accompanied by broken chords in the other, to ethereal harmonics which close the second movement. The latter part of the third movement was even more impressive, with the soloist deploying forces of multiple voices that would be beyond any other instrument.

A short contemporary piece followed: Ivan Fedele’s Chaconne from his 2011 Suite Francese V. This demonstrated some extreme effects, most notably the application of various pedals while the low strings were plucked as hard as Keblyté was able, generating buzzes and high levels of attack. Alternating with this, an almost insect like hum was created by repeated figures in the high strings.

The focus shifted to romanticism, with a beautiful rendering of “January” from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons followed by a fantasy on a theme from Eugene Onegin by Ekaterina Walter-Kühne. These works saw Keblyté at her best, achieving lilt and romance by delicate phrasing. The waltz passages in the Onegin came through nicely accented, and this was the first work in the programme to make use of large numbers of arpeggios – the rippling sounds that we naturally associate with the harp.

The concert closed with a remarkable arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Adiós Nonino – remarkable partly because it seems so unlikely that a tango based on the bandoneón could be arranged for harp at all, but also because such a wide range of moods and timbres appears in such a short period of time. The performance was mixed, with some of the passages generating real excitement, but some missing the mark.

It’s not common to see a full hour of solo harp music, incorporating music of many types from late Baroque to the 21st century. It has left me far better educated as to the breadth of which this instrument is capable.