interview with Lara St. John: Bach with harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet

February 22, 2012, 3:49 PM · Canadian violinist Lara St. John and French harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet have re-cast five of Bach's violin/flute/harpsichord sonatas as ideal vehicles for violin and harp in their new recording, Bach Sonatas, which was released last week on Lara's Ancalagon label.

"Unlike Beethoven, where you really wouldn't want to hear one of his violin and piano sonatas on, say, marimba, Bach seems to transcend instrumentation," Lara said. "In Bach's time, soprano instruments like violin and flute were pretty interchangeable. Even in Mozart's time, he would write for 'flute or violin.' Bach himself was constantly transcribing his own compositions."

Marie-Pierre LanglametLara St. John
Harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet, left, and violinist Lara St. John

Lara and Marie-Pierre, who is principal harpist for the Berlin Philharmonic, will kick off a series of live performances of the Bach Sonatas and other works with a concert this Sunday in New Jersey. They are calling it their Harpolin Tour, and other stops will include Boston; Le Poisson Rouge in New York; the Apple Store in New York; Chicago; and Ontario.

Bach's violin and flute sonatas were written with keyboard accompaniment in mind, and in Bach's time, that basically meant harpsichord. Our modern pianos did not yet exist, so even to play these works with piano is to play them in a way that Bach had not envisioned.

But harp? How did that come about? It all had to do with two longtime friends with a penchant for experimental sight-reading sessions.

"I've known Marie-Pierre for years and years, because we were at school together at Curtis Institute," Lara said. "She's an amazing sight-reader on the harp. I remember up on the third floor at Curtis, getting a big score and going through 'The Magic Flute,' all of us singing different parts. Somebody might have a bassoon, somebody might have a violin, so we'd all kind of play whatever parts we felt like. We sort of learned Mozart operas with harp, bassoon, violin and a little bit of bad singing." (she laughs)

Following her studies, Marie-Pierre played at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, then moved to Berlin in 1993.

"We kept in touch all these decades," Lara said. Lara looked up Marie-Pierre when she was visiting Berlin about four or five years ago. "I had the fiddle with me, and so she said, 'Let's read some stuff!' And I said, 'What, Magic Flute again?' (she laughs) and she said, 'No no no, how about some of the violin sonatas, they're so niceā€¦'"

They were more than just nice.

"For for me it was revelatory," Lara said. "I'm a huge Bach fan, and for some reason, those sonatas had always been elusive. I had never felt very close to them. Of course I know the Glenn Gould-Jaime Laredo recording, but they never quite struck the same way other Bach does for me. I had read them all with various pianists at various times, and for one reason or another, I never actually programmed them."

When she heard the sonatas with harp, that all changed. "Somehow, especially hearing that E major with harp, I thought, this is my favorite Bach I've ever heard! It's a very, very different sound."

They are different compared to piano, and they are different compared to harpsichord. "The other day, out of curiosity, I compared our harp E major and B minor with a recording with harpsichord," Lara said. The harpsichord's mono-dynamic sound was strikingly different than the touch of the harp. "It almost sounds evil with harpsichord. With the touch of the harp -- every note is not the same, so a lot more nuance is possible. And it's softer, but it's so much more beautiful, and I think a lot more comes through with the harp than with the harpsichord.

"Obviously, it's written for keyboard; a pedal harp didn't exist in Bach's time," Lara said, "so he wasn't writing with any of those technical requirements in mind. Of course, he never did write with anyone's technical requirements in mind! But that's why we chose these particular sonatas, because they are note-for-note, exactly what was written."

For this recording, they chose Bach's sonatas for violin and harpsichord in B minor (BWV 1014) and E major (BWV 1016) as well as his sonatas for flute and harpsichord in G minor (BWV 1020); B minor (BWV 1030) and E flat major (BWV 1031).

Had they chosen some of the other violin sonatas, "They're so involved, and so contrapuntal, that it is not actually physically possible on the harp. In the ones that we chose, she didn't have to change a note. So they're not transcriptions."

"I can't imagine anybody else being able to do this, because it's incredibly difficult," Lara said of the harp-as-harpsichord part. "If you talk to a harpist about Marie-Pierre, they get down on their knees and start praying. She's an amazing musician -- kind of a harp goddess!"

And how about the violin part, what kinds of things did Lara have to do differently, to pull this off with harp?

"With harp, basically you have to start your diminuendos a little earlier, and start your crescendos a little later. There's a certain sensitivity that a violinist needs to have, as I learned, with harp, that you don't need with piano. It's not the same instrument. It's a lot more delicate," Lara said. "We spent mornings recording this at Teldex, in Berlin, and on the very last morning, we finished our recording around 11 a.m. For about 10 seconds I just had to play fortissimo!" she laughed. Playing with harp was difficult, in that it required much restraint. "I'm not a particularly restrained person, so learning that kind of restraint -- like speaking softly -- was a new experience. I think it was good for me."


February 24, 2012 at 01:36 PM · Wonderful interview, thanks for this post. I really love Lara St. John's Four Seasons album. I find her playing very stirring. I hope her violin/harp duos find their way to CD; I will surely buy them.

Lara St. John said, "In Bach's time, soprano instruments like violin and flute were pretty interchangeable."

Yes, that was before it became fashionable for composers to write their violin concertos mainly for the upper half of the E string.

Laurie Niles wrote, "Bach's violin and flute sonatas were written with keyboard accompaniment in mind, and in Bach's time, that basically meant harpsichord. Our modern pianos did not yet exist ..."

That is true, but don't forget the organ. There is a nice recording of the Handel Sonatas with Hiro Kurosaki and a few of them are with organ accompaniment, and they are lovely. I bet it is hard to do in a live recital though.

February 26, 2012 at 07:47 PM · Thanks Laurie for keeping us current.

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