A new harp is a big deal for an orchestra. Musikkollegium Winterthur’s previous instrument did four decades of service, but was “quite dry” according to harpist Julie Palloc. Winterthur’s flautist, Nolwenn Bargin, joined Palloc in Paris to select the new harp. Flute and harp are a frequent musical pairing, so Mozart’s famous concerto was on the bill for the instrument’s inaugural concert. Alas, Palloc was unable to take part, but Anneleen Lenaerts – the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal – was a starry replacement. Still, it must be an odd situation to step into, a bit like unwrapping someone else’s Christmas present. 

Anneleen Lenaerts and the new Camac harp
© Musikkollegium Winterthur

The instrument itself is a real French beauty, a Canopée ébène model from the Camac company in Mouzeil, Brittany. Designed by Jocelyne Réal, its Macassar ebony body is inlaid with sycamore and walnut decorations and mother-of-pearl detailing. Biblical harpist King David appears on the Musikkollegium’s 1658 coat of arms and supporters can purchase linocuts inspired by the image to help fund the orchestra’s new addition. Lenaerts got to put the Winterthur harp through its paces in two classics of the repertoire. 

Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane was commissioned by the Pleyel company in 1904 to show off its new chromatic harp – larger than the traditional instrument, with no pedals but many more strings to enable it to play all the chromatic pitches. (Érard’s solution – the double action harp with seven pedals – eventually prevailed and is the standard instrument played today.) Debussy’s contrasting dances certainly demonstrated the wonderful rich tone of the new Camac harp, all virginal purity in the delicate Danse sacrée, while Lenaerts’ gauzy arpeggios in the Danse profane wafted flirtatiously, the musical equivalent of a costly French perfume. Alas, the video director rarely gave us a good view of Lenaerts' playing, often obscured by conductor Jac van Steen, with hardly any of the busy pedal action.

Nolwenn Bargin and Anneleen Lenaerts
© Musikkollegium Winterthur

Lenaerts partnered Winterthur’s flautist Nolwenn Bargin in a pristine rendition of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp in C major, full of collegiate amiability and perfect synchronicity, flashing smiles at each other through the harp’s strings. The first movement cadenza was restrained and noble, the Andantino middle movement perfectly poised. Bargain’s tone was feathery light, but with pronounced articulation in the Rondeau finale. 

Flute and harp were at the heart of the origin of Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques, composed for piano duo but drawn from the erotic music – scored for two flutes, two harps and celesta – to illustrate Pierre Louÿs’ Chansons de Bilitis. With the harp being the raison d'être for the Winterthur programme, it was a perverse decision to perform the Six épigraphes in Jean-François Paillard’s monochrome orchestration for strings which excludes the harp entirely. A puzzling concert opener. 

The Haydn symphony that closed the programme lacked a little fire, no. 87 in A major, part of the set of six composed for Paris. Jac van Steen established steady tempi, including a stodgy Minuet and an over-careful finale that didn’t live up to its Vivace marking. The recorded sound favoured the polished playing of the 27 Winterthur strings over the winds, although that didn’t mask a few tuning problems. Perhaps it was right that the orchestra didn’t try to steal the new harp’s limelight.

This performance was reviewed from the Musikkollegium Winterthur live video stream