Duo Praxedis: Works for Harp & Piano

Zunfthaus zur Waag, Zurich, 2015-12-20

2.5-star rating

2015-12-23 — Original posting
2016-08-27 — Brushed up for better readability

Duo Praxedis (source: www.praxedis.ch)
Duo Praxedis @ Zunfthaus zur Waag, Zurich (source: www.praxedis.ch)

Table of Contents


Around mid-December I meant to invite some people for a private concert (which I’m going to discuss here soon); with one exception, these invitations did not work out, but instead I received a suggestion to visit a “small-scale” concert (see below), and I received a very generous invitation to a concert in the Tonhalle, which I have discussed already.

So, this is the report about the “other” of these two unplanned concert visits:

To me, this was an unusual concert, at an unusual location: I have never before been in this building, and I have never, ever consciously listened to music for the (now) rather rare combination of harp and piano.

The Venue

Let me quickly describe the venue first. Zurich has a history of guilds. 26 of these guilds still exist in Zurich to this day. That history goes back many centuries, in this case to the 14th century. In 1336, wool and linen cloth weavers, bleachers and hat makers were forming individual guilds. 1440 these were combined to form the “Zunft zur Waag” (“scale’s guild”). That guild convened (and still convenes) in a Restaurant “Zur Waag” (“Restaurant to the Scale”, now Zunfthaus Zur Waag). Hence the name of this guild.

This restaurant is located at a square next to the Fraumünster, one of Zurich’s central churches, and formerly part of an ancient, politically and economically important monastery (a nunnery, actually).

The concert took place in the old “Zunftstube” (the guild’s room), in the third floor of the “Zunfthaus Zur Waag”, a room that can hold an audience of maybe up to 100 people. It’s a venerable location, all in dark wood (ceiling and floor included) and lead lattice windows. The picture above was taken in the actual concert venue.

Harp & Piano

Some information on the artists in this concert: the Duo Praxedis is a “family business”, consisting of the pianist Praxedis Geneviève Hug (*1984) and her mother, Praxedis Hug-Rütti playing the harp.

Today, this is a rather unusual combination, but apparently (as Praxedis Geneviève Hug tells me), from the early classical period up to the World War (WWI) it had a fair number of supporters among the composers (and, of course, in the music scenes of that time). After that, though, the popularity of this instrumental duo saw a rapid decline. By now, it is an absolute rarity.

The reason for this may well be that for one the piano has become very popular, while the number of harp players has remained rather small. Also, people may regard combinations offering more contrast (e.g., piano with a string or wind instrument) more attractive than two instruments with a “percussive” sound (i.e., a sound that starts with a beat or pluck, then decays until it is actively dampened / quenched).

The two artists in the Duo Praxedis are now resurrecting / reviving this tradition. This can be seen as attractive even just because it is unfamiliar in today’s music scenes. However, it also has the disadvantage typical to peculiar instruments or instrument combinations: a rather small repertoire, possibly also the support of only minor (past) composers. The Duo Praxedis is trying to circumvent some of the disadvantage by commissioning new compositions (two per year), in order to increase the repertoire, and also to widen the scope by adding works in contemporary styles.

The Artists

Praxedis Hug-Rütti is born in Zug / Switzerland; she started playing the piano, then took harp lessons with Emmy Hürlimann (then solo harpist in the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich) — she completed her harp education at the Zurich conservatory and later in England, thereafter pursuing an international career as concert harpist.

In 1996, she started appearing with her daughter, the pianist Praxedis Geneviève Hug, who has done her studies (up to the soloist diploma) with Prof. Theo Lerch, later received support and further education from artists such as Shura Cherkassky, Karl Engel, Alexis Weissenberg, Krystian Zimerman, Wolfgang Boettcher, Pierre Amoyal and Rudolf Baumgartner. With this solid technical and musical foundation, she has launched a concert and recording career as pianist, besides her numerous appearances as part of the Duo Praxedis.

The Concert

The duo recital ran under the title “Weihnachtszauber” (Christmas Enchantment). The original program featured 12 Lieder by Franz Schubert, transcribed for harp & piano, followed by a popular piece for harp solo, “La source” by the Belgian composer Alphonse Hasselmans (1845 – 1912), and the “Paraphrase de concert” for piano by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), concluding with the composition by Théodore Labarre (see below).

However, in honor of a friend of the family who recently passed away, the two solo pieces were dropped from the program, in favor of a composition for harp & piano which the deceased friend liked, by Johann Baptist (Jean-Baptiste) Krumpholz:

Krumpholz: Sonata in F major for Harp & Piano

The concert opened with a Sonata in F major for harp & piano by Johann Baptist Krumpholz (1742 – 1790) — a Czech composer and harpist (Jan Křtitel Krumpholtz), born in Budenice, near Zlonice. He reportedly had success with a harp concerto at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Thereafter, he served in Count Esterházy’s court orchestra for three years. During this time he allegedly has taken counterpoint lessons with Joseph Haydn. Krumpholz then toured through Europe as a harp soloist and worked with harp manufacturers in Metz and Paris on improving the instrument. He was married to Anne-Marie Krumpholtz (1755 – 1824), also a harpist (and his former pupil). However, when his wife left him and went to London, he drowned himself in the river Seine. Krumpholz left behind concertos, chamber music and a fair number of sonatas for the harp.

Composition and Performance

Krumpholz’ music is nice, pleasant — a good example of early classical style, similar in style to compositions by Dussek and others, not overly complex in texture, structure and harmonics, but nicely combining the characteristics of the harp and the piano; I particularly liked the fast movements (the second movement, a minuet in D minor, has some lengths, despite being only 3 minutes).

The two artists are obviously thoroughly familiar with each other. They have mutually adopted each other’s playing style. Also, they know how to balance the sound of the harp against the volume of a mid-size grand piano (Yamaha). Praxedis Geneviève Hug carefully adjusted her articulation to that of the harp. Also, the coordination in acciaccaturas was excellent. The last movement is rather virtuosic on the harp. I did not expect a deeply moving, emotionally complex composition, but the outer movements are definitely worth listening to. They stand out in sound from the relative uniformity of early classical duo compositions of that time.

Thomas: Schubert Lied Transcriptions

Next in the program were 12 Lieder by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828), which John Thomas (1826 – 1913) has arranged for harp and piano. This was a Welsh composer / instrumentalist who was appointed harpist to Queen Victoria in 1872. I was particularly curious to hear this section of the program, featuring 12 transcriptions:

Der Erlkönig“, D.328 (op.1)

Among all the songs in this recital, I found this to be the weakest, as an arrangement or transcription. Schubert’s original already is challenging: the singer must switch between the roles of the Erlkönig, the father, and the child. Liszt made a purely instrumental piano work from this, and this works well — primarily through its (or Liszt’s) virtuosity. Thomas’ arrangement keeps the illusion of a Lied, and that faces the problem that neither the harp nor the piano have sufficient modulatory variability to picture these three characters.

In addition, the roles are not allocated to one instrument, but all three switch between the harp and the piano. This essentially defeats the drama, the actual play — leaving music that is still excellent, but a far cry from Schubert’s original in terms of capturing the listener in the drama that is unfolding. Also, around the climax of the story, the harp fails to produce the required intensity, the depth of the drama. That is not criticism on the part of the artists (the playing was very good), but on the part of the arranger.

Ungeduld” (“Dein ist mein Herz“) from “Die schöne Müllerin“, D.795

Initially, the piano suitably takes the role of the accompaniment, the harp (obviously) is expanding from the vocal part. Then, just as in “Erlkönig”, roles are switching — but ion this case not to the detriment of the song. The song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” appeared in print as Schubert’s op.25

Ständchen” (“Leise flehen meine Lieder“) from “Schwanengesang“, D.957

A very atmospheric arrangement — very nice, particularly the serene, arpeggiated coda! Here, the piano takes most of the singer’s role, the harp steps in as an echo effect of sorts. Then, these roles are switching (Thomas seems to like this role-switching!).

Gretchen am Spinnrad” (“Meine Ruh’ ist hin“), D.118 (op.2)

Another instance of switching roles. This works well here, as both instruments are equally capable of illustrating the rotating spinning wheel.

Der Wanderer” (“Ich komme vom Gebirge her“), D.493 (op.4/1)

Doesn’t come close to the intensity and drama of the original — but certainly interesting music as well, and quite atmospheric, in its own way.

Das Fischermädchen” from the cycle “Schwanengesang“, D.957

A little fast, maybe — at least, the way I hear Schubert’s original.

Auf dem Wasser zu singen“, D.774

This Lied (starting with “Mitten im Schimmer der spiegelnden Wellen”) appeared as Schubert’s op.72. Here, the harp appears to reach its limits in terms of agility, compared to the piano (a technical issue, not a matter of interpretation).

Abschied” (?)

Another, very atmospheric piece! I’m not sure about the title, the identity of the Lied, though. It’s neither D.475, nor D.578, nor “Abschied” from the cycle “Schwanengesang”, D.957.

Tränenregen” (?)

I’m again not sure about the title, the identity of the Lied: it’s not the “Tränenregen” from the cycle “Die schöne Müllerin”, D.795 — at best, maybe a very free arrangement of that song.

An Silvia” (“Das ist Silvia“), D.891

Here, the “voice” is almost exclusively on the harp, while the piano sticks to the accompaniment, which indeed is very pianistic.

Du bist die Ruh” — not!

Definitely not “Du bist die Ruh” (D.776), after the poem by Friedrich Rückert, as expected from the program notes, but a rather free adaptation of “Sei mir gegrüßt”, D.741, also after a text by Rückert — a mere shadow of Schubert’s original; as a Schubert transcription, I would rate it lower than most other songs.

Wohin?” (“Ich hört’ ein Bächlein rauschen“) from “Die schöne Müllerin“, D.795

This loses substantial parts of the spirit of Schubert’s Lied. The cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” was published as Schubert’s op.25

Instrumental Transcriptions of Schubert’s Lieder — A Good Idea?

Purely instrumental adaptations of Lieder by Schubert are a tricky business, because Schubert does so much more than following the rhythm of the language and filling in a melody: his ingenuity is in the interpretation of the text’s poetic content, and any instrumental adaptation deprives the song of its very basis.

On a “vocal” instrument, such as a string instrument (violin, viola, etc.) or a wind instrument, the artist can at least try imitating the voice while thinking the underlying text — reaching the listener with that hidden part of the content is a challenge. If, however, the two instruments involved are both plucked (harp) or percussive (piano), this is another, substantial move away from the original.

I don’t mean to imply that what remains is necessarily bad quality music — Schubert’s melodic genius still shines through. The music is certainly nice to listen to: a series of 12 such transcriptions is rarely ever boring.It is pleasant, sometimes even interesting entertainment. However, in direct comparisons with the original, many of the transcriptions feel a bit shallow, for reasons just outlined. This is a comment on the transcription, not on the interpretation. It is clear from the concert that the two artists “know their business” very well. They are an ensemble with lots of experience and naturally intimate knowledge of each other’s musical intents!

Labarre: Duo sur des motifs de La Favorite de G. Donizetti, op.111

As conclusion of the program, the Duo Praxedis performed a composition by Théodore Labarre (1805 – 1870): the Duo sur des motifs de La Favorite de G. Donizetti, op.111. Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) was a prolific opera composer. He finished his opera “La Favorita” in 1840.

Théodore Labarre was a prominent harpist and composer. He wrote his op.111 in 1842, a mere two years after Donizetti completed his opera. This sure must have been a popular arrangement with people who witnessed a performance of the opera. It allowed them to re-experience, re-live the opera in a more modest and more accessible environment. Labarre’s duo combines a series of melodic highlights from Donizetti’s stage work.

I have never attended a performance of “La Favorita“. Hence, I take a somewhat more neutral view on this. What I heard is a multi-faceted composition. It featured some rather virtuosic harp segments, quite well-played, as far as I can tell. But overall, it lacks structure / concept. It also makes it difficult to maintain musical flow through the entire composition. It “falls apart” into a loose chain of smaller segments. To me, the piece had its share of “lengths”. Overall, it is not among the most valuable harp compositions, I think.

Encore — Holý: Christmas Legend (Légende), op.32a

The audience wasn’t quite as critical as myself. As reward for the applause, the artists played an encore, the Christmas Legend (Légende), op.32a, by the Portuguese harp virtuoso Alfred Holý (1866 – 1948). With this, they released the audience into the sunny afternoon of this Sunday in December. The level of the compositions may not have been up to par with that of typical concerts in large venues, such as the Tonhalle — still, I kept the memory of an unusual concert, with music out-of-the-ordinary!

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