A Magical Midnight Stroll With Harpist Magdalena Hoffmann

by delarue

Absent any central concept, harpist Magdalena Hoffmann’s new album Nightscapes – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous playlist of both original works for harp and imaginative transcriptions of solo piano pieces. How shadowy is it? As you would expect, it’s more on the slow and starry side, although Hoffmann hardly shies away from material whose technical demands push the limits of what’s usually expected of a classical concert harpist – or from nocturnes, for that matter. On some of the piano pieces, she essentially plays a dual role akin to rhythm guitarist and lead guitarist all at once, with bright melody over strummed rhythm.

The album opens with Respighi’s Notturno in G flat major, arranged for harp with a spare, warmly incisive melody above mutedly strummy chords. Hoffmann follows a very steady trajectory, finally cutting loose with some jaunty flourishes at the end. Her take of Chopin’s A Minor Waltz – the first of three of those pieces – is amazingly close to the piano version, complete with spiky grace notes. She gives a steady, sober grace to the E Minor Waltz, but watch out – that flurry before the third “verse” has an unexpectedly wild, flamenco tinge, hardly what you’d expect to hear on a concert harp. And her spare, poignant, clear-eyed interpretation of the A Minor Waltz, Op. 48 is a revelation, especially in contrast to some of the florid piano versions that have circulated over the years.

In Hoffmann’s hands, John Field’s Nocturnes in B flat and G major as well as Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Sogno for Harp come across as cheerily attractive lullabies. 20th century French harpist-composer Henriette Renié’s Danse des Lutins is one of the album’s rare gems: courtly rhythms, an architecture that looks back the baroque, but also a devious acerbity. Hoffmann then returns to more rapturous territory with Clara Schumann’s Notturno, Op. 6, rising to an unexpectedly emphatic intensity.

Britten’s Suite for Harp, a partita of miniatures, gives Hoffmann a launching pad for demanding leaps and bounds across the length of the harp, through some thorny basslines and moments of phantasmagoria. The most colorful and bewitching piece on the program is Marcel Tournier’s La Danse du Moujik, with its kaleidoscopic dynamics and ominously allusive chromatics.

The most outside-the-box arrangement here is the Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone, a methodically lyrical Romantic ballad by jazz pianist Fred Hersch. Hoffmann gets a workout after that, with Jean-Michel Damase’s dramatically ornamented Fantaisie on Motifs from Les Contes d’Hoffmann. All in the family maybe?

She closes the record with an incisive, methodical reworking of Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp minor. Op. 48 No. 2, bringing the lights down, but not all the way.