Synonymous with angels and dreams, the harp has always been the consummate supporting artist – usually the bridesmaid, rarely the bride – but thankfully there is repertoire that allows it occasionally to take centre stage and share in the limelight. My fascination with the beauty and grandeur of this most ancient and enduring of instruments was sparked many years ago by the eclectic talents of Marisa Robles and Harpo Marx (yes, he really could play!), so it was gratifying to see the harp featuring prominently at the heart of this programme. Angelic and dreamlike? Absolutely. But the harp can be so much more.

Xavier de Maistre
© Felix Broede

First, though, grandeur of a different sort in the form of Elgar’s chivalric Froissart Overture. Inspired by Jean Froissart’s 14th-century Chronicles, this was early Elgar but already showing signs of his characteristic fingerprints. Versatile Dutch-Maltese conductor Lawrence Renes showed calm assurance in charge of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, acting out every mood change on the podium and giving very clear direction. He provided shape and nuance in this piece, producing sharp attack and smooth lines and a good sense of momentum. The LPO was alive to all the subtle changes of tempo and dynamics, acting as a tightly-drilled unit and with Renes coaxing out detail from the many moving parts to produce a satisfyingly full-bodied performance. 

Following in a fine tradition of great French harpists, Xavier de Maistre, a former member of the Vienna Philharmonic and now one of today’s leading harpists, was joined by the LPO’s own Principal Flute, Juliette Bausor, in a sublime performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. Bausor’s lustrous, silky tone and keen sense of flow complemented de Maistre’s masterly control over the depths of colour produced by his instrument, combining with effortless synergy and showing remarkable technique. The LPO provided sensitive support under Renes’ baton, presenting a delicate and precise touch to accompany the intricate interplay between flute and harp and never overpowering the soloists. The uplifting lightness of the outer movements highlighted de Maistre’s witty punctuations, combining with Bausor’s hypnotically fluid phrasing with breathtaking beauty in the dreamy slow movement.

Interest in the largely neglected William Alwyn has been gaining some traction of late. Inspired by the 17th-century Metaphysical poetry of Giles Fletcher, Alwyn’s Lyra Angelica, a concerto for harp and string orchestra, showcased de Maistre’s talents even more, but still in a subtle way. This four-movement piece has an overriding meditative quality, but not without occasional outbursts of aggression. De Maistre played with a sense of mysticism, weaving delicate wisps into luxurious glissandi and with pointed articulation interspersing pastoral passages. The LPO strings produced radiant lush layers and Renes carved out some wonderful shapes from the understated texture of this glorious score to complement the harp’s softness and its constant searching, alternating between thrilling swathes of luminosity and carefully placed, ethereal harmonics. This was a cultured performance of a thoroughly absorbing piece, quite deservedly one of the composer’s favourites.

As if to bring us down to earth, Renes ended with a rip-roaring account of Richard Strauss’ tone poem on the ubiquitous philanderer, Don Juan. The orchestration is dazzling, and the high-voltage LPO obliged with swashbuckling strings and arrogant brass fanfares mixed with sentimentality in the woodwinds and a particularly poignant, sensual oboe solo. Renes again showed his class in producing sharp detail and finding the right balance, as the orchestra’s dynamic passion receded into a hushed close as Don Juan’s fate was sealed.