CD Review // Ariadne’s Legacy – R. Murray Schafer’s Complete Works for Harp

March 22, 2017

By: Michael Schulman

In his long career, R. Murray Schafer composed a total of seven works with a prominent role for the harp. They’re all here, presented in chronological order, in this stunning new two-CD compilation of archival recordings, performed by the artists for whom they were written. This invaluable contribution to Canadian music history was conceived as a tribute to Schafer by Judy Loman, Principal Harpist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1960 until her retirement in 2002, who is featured in the first five of these compositions.

The Crown of Ariadne for solo harp (1979) recalls the myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Its six episodes begin with Ariadne’s awakening and ends with Theseus slaying the Minotaur and dancing lightheartedly as he follows Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth. Schafer’s music succeeds in simultaneously sounding both ancient and contemporary, with Loman also playing various small percussion instruments in this virtuoso showpiece for the harp (and the harpist).

Schafer revisited this myth in Theseus for harp and string quartet (1986). Less overtly programmatic than its predecessor, the single movement follows a similar trajectory, the driving middle section suggesting Theseus’s battle with the Minotaur and ending with his triumphant emergence from the labyrinth. Enhanced by Schafer’s inventive use of unusual instrumental effects and timbres, Loman and the Orford String Quartet produce a highly-charged, almost cinematic air of mystery and drama.

Schafer’s Harp Concerto (1987) likewise exploits his remarkable knack for creating striking instrumental colours, employing novel combinations of instruments and a variety of percussion. The first movement, filled with shimmering “night music,” leads to the playful, propulsive middle movement that includes a fascinating passage for the harp and four
double-basses, each with its own solo part. The finale begins with more “night music,” this time with a hint of Spanish-Moorish flavour, building to a fortissimo climax, in which Loman’s harp is amplified and thus still audible amid the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis.

Wild Bird for violin and harp was commissioned by the wife of Jacques Israelievitch for the violinist’s 50th birthday. Schafer writes that it was composed in November 1997, “when all the birds had vanished but I was remembering them and longing for their return.” Israelievitch, the TSO’s Concertmaster from 1988 to 2008, died in 2015, but in this recording, joined by his long-time TSO colleague Judy Loman, we can still enjoy his virtuosic, passionate performance of this very passionate, often disquieting music.

The lustrous voice of Schafer’s partner, mezzo-soprano Eleanor James, shines in two works. Tanzlied (2004), with James, Loman and bits of percussion (no way to tell who’s percussing what), is set to a text from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. In it, Zarathustra, “the Dancer,” yearns to embrace ecstasy, life and transcendence, a recurrent theme in Schafer’s “mystical” works.

James and harpist Lori Gemmell perform Four Songs for Harp and Mezzo-Soprano (2011), with texts drawn from The Wisdom of Solomon and the works of Yeats, Tagore and Schafer’s favourite mystic, Rumi. References to “light” and “dark,” familiar Schafer tropes, link the four songs, as well as the Middle-Eastern-tinged, sparkling figurations of the harp.

The lyrical first movement (“Freshly Flowing”) of Schafer’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp (2011) pays homage to Debussy, who pioneered composing for this combination of instruments. The second movement (“Slowly, Calmly”) finds Schafer at his most unabashedly romantic, delightful in its sheer loveliness, while the buoyant finale (“Rhythmic”) brings this somewhat old-fashioned score to a satisfying close. The spirited performance by the members of Trio Verlaine suggests they enjoyed playing every moment of it, as much as I enjoyed listening to it.

Over 40 years ago, I was bold enough to tell Murray that I thought his true genius lay not in his extravagant multimedia spectacles, but in his smaller-scaled works that highlight the magical sonorities he could create with minimal forces. Murray smiled and said, “Michael, I don’t agree.”

I still believe I was right and offer this treasurable album as evidence. It’s titled Ariadne’s Legacy but in truth it’s really a precious new part of Schafer’s legacy, the priceless recorded legacy of the man I consider Canada's greatest composer.

Click here to preview and purchase the album through the CMC.