James Huon George & Philippa McAuliffe. Urrbrae House. 30 Jul 2023
There is a relatively extensive repertoire for the harp and piano, but it is something that is infrequently heard in Adelaide, and so what a delight to have a concert devoted to this pairing of instruments.
Philippa McAuliffe (harp) and James Huon George (piano) are both recent honours graduates of the Elder Conservatorium and both have their eyes firmly set on careers as professional musicians with international studies on their near horizon. They, like other talented and ambitious emerging musicians, are carefully searching out and creating performance opportunities for themselves in order to hone their craft. And so to today’s concert.
Presented in the peaceful and gracious ambience of the historic Urrbrae House, George and McAuliffe have curated a selection from the repertoire (duets and solos) that takes us for a stroll around Europe, through Italy, France, Germany, and Spain. The program includes pieces by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Fauré, Debussy, Destenay, Poulenc, Alkan, Renié, Beethoven, Granados, and Salzedo.
The program begins with Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Concertino, Op.93, which is the most substantial piece and cornerstone of the program. Originally scored for harp, string quartet and three clarinets, the piece is perhaps better known and appreciated as an arrangement for harp and chamber orchestra. Today we heard a version for harp and piano reduction, and it delightfully captured the flavour of the original. McAuliffe and George allowed the harp to be dominant throughout with careful balancing of dynamics in the dialogue. The ‘finale spagnolo’ was particularly well performed, replete with percussive taps to the body of the harp.
Not to be left out, George also percusses the casing of the piano in the Rumba by Salzedo, which concluded the program. This exciting piece was paired with Salzedo’s Tango, and George and McAuliffe allowed the compelling Latin rhythms to come through easily and clearly.
The compositions by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Salzedo bookended a dizzying selection of pieces in French, German and Spanish styles.
Although George wisely left the lid of the piano closed, the acoustic of the room at times blurred the harmonics of Debussy’s Rêverie and perhaps less pedalling might have resolved the matter, at least partially. The Romance sans paroles, Op.17 by Faure, did not suffer from this problem, and was performed with sweetness and clarity. The artists combined exceptionally well in Destenay’s Conte de veillée. Op. 30, and McAuliffe gave the piece an unexpected sense of light-heartedness, as if it intended to portray children playing games before going to bed. George’s work in the right hand was notable.
George performed two contrasting piano solos: Poulenc’s Nocturne No.1 in C, FP 56, and Alkan’s Prelude, Op.31, No.8. Both pieces rely on carefully executed ‘light and shade’, and in the Alkan George demonstrated moments of clarity and lucidity with his right-hand work, and heartfelt gloom in the left. Some performers have a natural affinity for some composers: perhaps Alkan is that for George?
McAuliffe performed Renié’s Pièce Symphonique en trois episodes with deep feeling, understanding and conviction. The sense of emotion associated with the loss of a loved one came through with incisive clarity. It was touching. There was nothing mawkish.
The arrangement of Beethoven’s song Adelaide, Op.46, for piano and harp is delightful, but it is one in which the dynamical balance between harp and piano is crucial. The harp does not mimic the human voice well, and the composition works best when the piano is played more softly than it was in this performance. Again, the acoustic of the venue tends to exaggerate the overtones produced by an undamped piano.
And then it is back to France with Renié’s delightfully sweet Les Pins de Charlannes, and then to Spain in what proved to be an interesting interpretation of Danza No.5 by Granados. McAuliffe and George chose to give the piece crisp phrasing which laid bare the rhythmic and percussive elements of dance styles from the south of Spain. The concert rounded out with the dance pieces by Salzedo, and the audience left with broad smiles on their faces.
Philippa McAuliffe and James Huon George are planning to reprise the concert later in the year at Baroque Hall in North Adelaide. It’s worth a second showing!
When: 30 Jul
Where: Urrbrae House