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Magdalena Hoffman - Nightscapes

Dave Thompson stays awake all night with harpist Hoffman's latest

Magdalena Hoffman

Nightscapes for Harp

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Magdalena Hoffman’s status among the modern world’s leading harpists takes another major leap forward with what is only her second album since 2018; and, perhaps, a more conventional demonstration of her playing, as opposed to her technique.

Footnotes, after all, was built around answering what Hoffman’s liner notes suggested was one of the great unanswered questions of harpists: “Why do they have so many pedals, and what are they for?” Nightscapes, contrarily, is designed for something that nobody has a problem understanding - the night.

Eighteen pieces from as far afield as Chopin, Britten, Schumann and Tournier take us through the darkness, and while there are certainly moments when Hoffman allows her versatility to shine forth, the collection makes absolutely no more demand on the listener than simply sitting and listening.

Hoffman’s own liners quote Kafka’s description of writing as “dreaming without sleeping,” and suggests the harp likewise “creates a special space for this nocturnal intimacy…. “ She wanted, she continues, “to use the harp… to dance through the night and dream the night away.”

It’s a description that fits the album seamlessly, but fascinatingly, too. A lot of the material here is most familiar from piano pieces - indeed, Hoffman largely, and purposefully, eschewed compositions written specifically for harp (pieces by Britten, Renie, Damase and Tournier are the exceptions), in order to re-envision them for her instrument and to great effect, too.

The accompanying booklet describes her versions of Field’s “Nocturnes…” as “allow[ing] the delicate broken chords to achieve an even greater sense of weightlessness than on the piano,” and that is true. But the harp shines and innovates, too, on jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s “Nocturne for the Left Hand Only” - famously, the first of his improvisations that the composer ever subsequently committed to paper.

As if to prove, however, that Nightscapes is an album for all the moods of the night, when Hoffman does turn her attention to pieces written specifically for the harp, Henriette Renié’s “Danse des Lutins” reveals itself to be as mischievously playful as any nocturnal revelry could be.