Silke Aichhorn
“Miniaturen 4” for Harp

Media Received for Reviewing


2020-08-21 — Original posting
2020-08-22 — Added 2 photos (thanks, Silke Aichhorn!)


Silke Aichhorn, "Miniaturen 4", CD cover
Silke Aichhorn — Harfe, “Miniaturen 4”, CD cover

Outline


Introduction

The Harp has a long history, from ancient Greece to renaissance and baroque instruments (smaller and simpler than modern instruments), on to its use in folk music, e.g., in Ireland and Scotland. In the late baroque and classic periods, the harp (in its existing form) imposed limitations, as the need to modulate into distant keys proved difficult, if not impractical. These limitations only really became manageable with the advent of the modern pedal harp. This invention made the instrument much more versatile. Consequently, the harp became an integral part of the romantic and post-romantic orchestra.

Solo harpists are a “rare species”. They face the chore of having to drag around bulky and heavy instrument (40 kg). As a solo instrument in concert, however, the modern harp probably feels “exotic” and “rare” to many. And yet, judging from Silke Aichhorn’s book (see below), once people know of a harpist “in reach”, there is a good chance that the harpist is hired as accompaniment for celebrations, weddings, church services, and the like—the harp is impressive to watch, the artist’s hands are fascinating to observe, and from its sound and look, the harp creates a festive atmosphere.

Silke Aichhorn

Silke Aichhorn (© Gerhard Nixdorf)
Silke Aichhorn (© Gerhard Nixdorf)

The German harpist Silke Aichhorn (see also Wikipedia) was born in Uster, Switzerland (where I now live!), but then, she grew up in Traunstein, Bavaria, where she had her first harp lessons in 1981, at the local music school. 1990, she temporarily returned to Switzerland, studying with the French harpist Chantal Mathieu (*1951) at the Conservatoire de Lausanne. The artist then moved on to the Cologne University of Music, where she studied with Chinese professor Han-An Liu, earning her Master of Arts degree in 1997. She has since won several prizes and awards.

Activities

Silke Aichhorn is one of Germany’s most prominent harpists—and for sure, she is the most active one! Just to give you an idea:

  • Silke Aichhorn pursues an international career as soloist, as well as in performances on radio and TV. As soloist, Silke Aichhorn has traveled not just Europe, but also Asia, the Americas, and Australia.
  • Chamber music engagements complement her activities as solo harpist. In all this, she (very successfully) is her own manager.
  • 2006, the artist founded her own label “Hörmusik“, through which she has so far published 25 CDs — the one discussed here is number 25. Through the same channel, she also publishes sheet music and scores of compositions and arrangements for her instrument.
  • Through her label, Silke Aichhorn has also published a highly amusing book “Lebenslänglich Frohlocken — Skurriles aus dem Alltag einer Harfenistin” (“Lifelong rejoicing — bizarre things from the everyday life of a harpist”, whereby “Lebenslänglich” in German has the scent of “life sentence”) about her life and adventures as a harpist.
  • Silke Aichhorn is jury member in harp competitions, she offers master classes, and she has bee guest teacher at universities in Austria (Feldkirch) and Germany (Mainz and Ochsenhausen).
  • The artist maintains a rich presence on YouTube, where she has posted over 90 videos.
  • Silke Aichhorn also pursues social engagements. She is married and mother of two girls.

Coping with Repertoire Limitations

The repertoire for solo harp (ignoring the harp as component of romantic orchestral works) is very limited. Very few composers—often harpists themselves—have written compositions for this instrument. Often, such works were transcriptions of compositions for other instruments. Naturally, Silke Eichhorn has long exhausted the repertoire of genuine, original compositions for her instrument, and expectedly, she has progressed to the genre of transcriptions that harpists have created over the past two centuries. On top of that, she creates her own transcriptions, as she sees fit—or as the need arises.

Silke Aichhorn’s many CDs cover vast parts of the classical and romantic, genuine harp repertoire, from solo pieces to chamber music, on to concertos. However, the exhaustion of that repertoire in recordings did not stop the artist from continuing to record harp music, with the obvious goal to popularize the harp and its sound. Forcibly, Silke Aichhorn resorted to transcriptions, ranging from music originally written for piano up to orchestral works, and of course also drawing from the vast range of Lied transcriptions.

In her search for new repertoire (certainly in the newest recording below), Silke Aichhorn is not focusing on music by a specific composer or transcriber / artist, but she tries to collect pieces that suit the program that she has in mind. And if she finds a fitting piece for which there is no harp transcription yet, she simply creates a new one herself—as she also does when people event organizers request a particular, popular melody or composition.


The CD: “Miniaturen 4”

Silke Aichhorn, "Miniaturen 4", CD cover

Harp compositions and transcriptions by Gillmann, Oberthür, Brahms, Stölzel, Weiss, Thomas, Pierné, Godefroid, Parish-Alvars, Glinka, Akyol, and Williams

Silke Aichhorn, harp

Hörmusik 122 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2020
Booklet: 12 pp. German

Silke Aichhorn, "Miniaturen 4", CD (EAN-13 barcode)
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What’s on the CD?

Among Silke Aichhorn’s 25 CDs, only a handful are devoted to a specific composer. The majority are themed recordings. Some are addressing a specific mood, others—like this one—are compilations of smaller pieces from the broad range of music that the artist is performing on her journey. It wasn’t quite planned this way, but given the circumstances with COVID-19 (and the close to 40 canceled concerts / performances that ensued), Silke Aichhorn refers to this as her “Corona CD”. Some of the pieces are related to these special circumstances. Also, because the artist took the lockdown as an opportunity to expand her search for new or unknown harp literature.


Composers and Their Works

I’m not an expert in harp music, so my remarks in the artist’s playing will be scarce (see the bottom of this post). Rather, let me focus on the composers and their works on this CD:

Kurt Gillmann (1889 – 1975): Waltz, op.35 (5’36”)

Kurt Gillmann was a German harpist and composer, starting his career at the State Theater Schwerin (now Mecklenburg State Theatre), where he worked 1912 – 1917. Up till 1943, he worked at Hannover State Opera, and he also worked for the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. All of Gillmann’s compositions, including operas, burned up. 1959, Gillman retired from his active career, spending several years on reconstructing his lost compositions.

Silke Aichhorn meant to perform this piece at a concert in Bayreuth this year, given the composer’s connection with that location. However, that concert was canceled, and so, the Waltz ended up as entry piece on that CD. Note that the opus number may be wrong—the German National Library lists that opus number with a set of songs.

If it weren’t written for the harp, this piece could just about be by one of the famous Viennese waltz composers, such as Johann Strauss I (1804 – 1849) or Johann Strauss II (1825 – 1899) or their contemporaries: a typical Viennese waltz (in A-B-A form), light, easy, a little shallow—pleasant, unpretentious salon music. Why not use this as entry point into this collection of harp music?


Charles Oberthür (1819 – 1895): Gems of German Songs. Twelve Recreations, op.61 (6’46”)

It’s the Beethoven year. However, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) only composed one single piece for harp—the Six Variations on a Swiss song for piano or harp, WoO 64, from 1790–1792). Silke Aichhorn did not select that, but rather decided to turn to Beethoven’s Lied “Adelaide”, op.46 (from around 1795). She recently (re-)discovered this in a transcription by the German harpist and composer Charles Oberthür.

The Lied “Adelaide” after a poem by Friedrich von Matthisson (1761–1831) needs no introduction (I have touched upon recordings of that song in an earlier post). The poem begins with the line “Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten” (Your friend wanders alone in the garden of spring). The Lied is central in Beethoven’s song oeuvre—obviously along with “An die ferne Geliebte”, op.98. “Adelaide” was very popular at the time of creation, and it saw numerous transcriptions, especially for the piano.

Lied Transcriptions?

One might argue that instrumental transcriptions of Lieder are questionable, as they cannot convey the text, hence the poetic content. However, Beethoven’s composition is certainly strong enough to stand on its own, without the text. And piano virtuosi certainly manage to pack most or all of the piano accompaniment and the melody voice into their hands, onto a keyboard, even making the melody voice sing and stand out. Why not take such a transcription as a “refresher” after attending a Liederabend?

Lied transcriptions were highly popular with harp composers in the 19th century—and this is a typical example of that genre. In this case, though, the harp faces some disadvantage in comparison with the piano: a harp transcription cannot compete with the original, in several ways: compared to a good interpretation of the original Lied,

  • it is impossible to follow the delicate dynamic differentiation in the balance between melody and accompaniment
  • not surprisingly, the piano seems more agile in performing certain textures in Beethoven’s accompaniment
  • it seems hard to build up the growing emotions, the sense of urgency, especially in the second part, which (in comparison) feels a tad harmless.

Remember, though: the harp doesn’t have a damper (sustain) pedal, and plucking strings is probably more challenging than pressing a key on the piano! That’s the nature, the limitation of the harp in performing a piano part, not the artist’s fault. Overall, it’s as if one were listening to Beethoven’s song through a curtain, or from another room.

Nevertheless, of course, the music remains beautiful also on the harp, as long as one does not expect a “replica” of what a virtuoso such as Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) would do on his instrument. And as long as one does not expect an “exact reproduction” of the original Lied.


Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): Intermezzo in A major, op.118/2 (5’35”)

Among Brahms’ late piano works is a wonderful, soothing composition. A true masterwork, full of intensity, longing and intimacy, touching to tears. It’s more than understandable that Silke Aichhorn worked hard on optimizing and refining the transcription for her instrument, after she heard this for the first time at the World Harp Conference 2014 in Sydney. And I must say: the result is truly beautiful, subtle: as good as Brahms’ original, I would claim. If not even better, thanks to the more mellow, ethereal and intimate character of the harp!


Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690 – 1749): Aria “Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freuden” (2’34”)

Stölzel’s aria “Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freuden” (If you are with me, then I will go gladly) is hardly ever performed in its original form, as part of the opera “Diomedes“. Rather, people know this in the version for voice and basso continuo (BWV 508) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). Bach included this transcription as No.25 in his 1725 Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. A beautiful melodic invention! It’s almost too nice, I’m tempted to say, as the tune easily turns into an earworm! In fact, I may have consumed an overdose of this melody in the past—but still: I love it, and the harp seems perfect to capture the serene mood of this aria!


Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687 – 1750): 3 Movements from the Sonata No.5 for Lute in G major, WeissSW 5 (5’47”)

Silke Aichhorn (© Markus Aichhorn)
Silke Aichhorn (© Markus Aichhorn)

Silvius (or Sylvius) Leopold Weiss (see also Wikipedia) was the most prominent lutenist of his time—and a prolific composer (he wrote over 100 sonatas for his instrument, over 1000 compositions overall). I have previously (and briefly) discussed three CDs with Lute music by Weiss. I have yet to find a sonata by Weiss that isn’t beautiful, touching, moving—and the Sonata No.5 that Silke Aichhorn selected is no exception. Plus, the harp is a perfectly adequate substitute for the baroque lute: highly recommended!

From the sound alone, some might even have trouble identifying the instrument: the harp sound resembles that of an archlute, though more rounded and well-defined in the bass (and devoid of the left-hand noise, of course).

Silke Aichhorn selected the first three movements out of the seven in the sonata (actually a baroque suite)—and she performs it in G♭:

  1. Prélude (1’19”)
  2. Allemande (2’43”)
  3. Courante (1’47”)

Irish Folk Tune “Inis Oírr” (4’05”)

This folk tune refers to Inis Oírr (Inisheer), one of three small islands in Galway Bay at Ireland’s west coast. Very atmospheric, and with that melancholy that is so typical of Irish (and Scottish) music: a nice intermezzo of sorts.


John Thomas (1826 – 1913): “David of the White Rock” (4’28”)

John Thomas was a Welsh composer and harpist—his many pieces for harp are a core part of the harp repertoire. Thomas enjoyed a very successful career as harpist all over Europe. He also wrote transcriptions of Lieder by Schubert—twelve of which I heard in a concert in Zurich on 2015-12-20. “David of the White Rock” (Dafydd y Garreg Wen) is a traditional Welsh song that is attributed to David Owen (1712 – 1741). It bears little or no resemblance to Irish or Scottish folk music, though it is equally (or even more) melancholic. Needless to say that Thomas’ fantasy on this song is very effective on the harp. And it is very atmospheric, too: a good choice for this collection!


Gabriel Pierné (1863 – 1937): Impromptu-Caprice, op.9 (6’06”)

Pierné’s oeuvre is not very large. However, it spans from orchestral works to ballet and opera, on to piano and other solo works. Among the latter is his op.9, the Impromptu-Caprice for harp. It’s a fantasy that starts pensive / reflective, but soon develops towards serene playfulness, with beautiful melodic inventions. Intermittently, the piece returns to the initial mood, but in the second half evolves into a more dancing pace, then into emphatic, grand / grandiose gestures: a brilliant, interesting piece—and also this is very effective on the harp!


Félix Godefroid (1818 – 1897): Barcarolle “Venise” (4’02”)

Félix (Dieudonné-Félix) Godefroid was a Belgian harpist and pianist who also composed for both his instruments. As a composition, this Barcarolle is not very demanding, the Barcarolle-like swaying is most prominent in the last part. The middle part is a little shallow, with a melody that reminds of typical salon music. Overall, a nice little petitesse nevertheless…


Elias Parish-Alvars (1808 – 1849): Grand Fantasia on Italian Themes, op.57 (7’18”)

Silke Aichhorn selected the last part of Parish-Alvars’ “Grande fantaisie et variations de bravoure pour la harpe sur des motifs italiens”, op.57 is simply brilliant—the highlight of this collection. Silke Aichhorn selected the final and most popular part of Parish-Alvars’ op.57, consisting of “Introduction – Cadenza – Rondo”—this was also published separately. A splendid composition, virtuosic—and at the same time catchy, thanks to the Italian melodies. The piece combines a wide range of techniques and colors on the harp, from big gestures, scales and fast, virtuosic figures and runs down to whispering tremolo and subtle flageolet tones. This makes the listener understand why Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869) called Parish-Alvars “the Liszt of the harp”! Clearly the highlight, the climax in this collection!


Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804 – 1857): “The Lark” from the song cycle “A Farewell from St.Petersburg” (3’23”)

The popular song “The Lark” (Жаворонок) is No.10 in Glinka’s cycle of 12 songs “A Farewell to Saint Petersburg” (Прощание с Петрбургом) has seen numerous transcriptions and adaptations. In the notes, Silke Aichhorn states that harpists mostly perform the highly virtuosic transcription by Mily Balakirev (1837 – 1910). However, for this collection she preferred the transcription by the Korean-German harpist Angela Klöhn. This focuses on the simple, melancholic and folk-like character of the melody, rather than trying to impress through glittering virtuosity. Atmospheric, unpretentious, nice.


Çağatay Akyol (*1969): Hittite Suite (2’57”)

Here, we move towards contemporary popular / entertainment music—not exactly my home turf. Still, I can see why Silke Aichhorn likes this miniature by the Turkish harpist Çağatay Akyol: swaying, syncopated rhythms, Anatolian themes / melodies with “suspended”, sightly “archaic” harmonies. Certainly atmospheric in its own way.


John T. Williams (*1932): Theme from the 1993 Film “Schindler’s List” (3’30”)

John Towner Williams is s composer of concertos, orchestra and chamber music works—and he is one of the most prominent creators of film music. A central representative of that latter genre is the music to the Film “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg (*1946). The main theme in that film, performed by the violinist Itzhak Perlman (*1945), is based on a Jewish melody. Silke Aichhorn performs an arrangement that she created from a simplified version for piano solo.


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Sonatina from the Cantata “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit“, BWV 106 (2’36”)

Bach’s early funeral cantata “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (God’s time is the very best time) is also known as Actus tragicus. The soothing introductory Sonatina (Molto adagio) is originally written for two obbligato alto recorders, viole da gamba and basso continuo. Bach wrote this while still residing in Mühlhausen, possibly from 1708. It’s hard not to be touched by Bach’s ingenious, simple melodic invention. To the artist’s dismay, Bach never wrote anything for the harp, so she resorted to a piano transcription by the French composer Jacques Erdos (*1932). Her choice as concluding piece is fully understandable—even though the harp version can hardly compete with the Sonatina in its original instrumentation.


Performance Notes

I did not know any of the transcriptions, nor any of the original works for harp. So, strictly speaking, I have no point of reference for this collection (nor did I try finding any on the YouTube or on streaming channels). Therefore, I refrain from rating the technical aspects of the performance. Subjectively, though, I can certainly state that I find Silke Aichhorn’s playing flawless, highly refined in articulation, touch and dynamics—elegant and strongly virtuosic in pieces such as Parish Alvars’ showpiece.

There is not much space for refinement / elaborate dynamics, let alone virtuosity in some of the simpler / popular pieces. If these sound “simple”, it’s in the unpretentious nature of these pieces. Also, I’m fully aware that I should not compare piano versions with performances on the harp, as the playing techniques on these instruments are so very different.

One short remark here, only partially related to this recording: before seriously delving into this recording, I briefly explored a few YouTube videos by this artist, all of them live concert recordings. I may have picked the “wrong” recording—but I experienced a slight disappointment. In the aftermath, I realized that the audio part of at least one particular video was not really up-to-par with the artist’s performance—the dynamics appeared very limited (automatic volume control must have been engaged). I was relieved to see that the CD recordings give a much better representation of Silke Aichhorn’s performance. Beware of judging an artist from YouTube videos!


Conclusions

Initially, I was somewhat skeptical about reviewing this CD—I’m not particularly fond of “wild collections” and “themed” CDs. However, I do like harp music, and the limited scope of original pieces for this instrument inevitably leads to such recordings. The repertoire on this CD is spanning a wide range of levels—musically, technically, and in styles. There is something for almost any musical taste, and at the very least, this CD is anything but boring.

The attempt to include something “for everybody” runs into the danger of losing some listeners, at least temporarily, though. My recommendation: people should watch out for pieces that they really like, by listening to the recording in full. The worst one could do to Silke Aichhorn’s efforts (or in fact any classical recording) is, to have this run as anonymous background music. The artist does not deserve this, for sure!

Yes, the turn from highly virtuosic, genuine harp highlights (such as Parish-Alvars) over a Russian song, an Anatolian folk tune, film music, on to a Bach movement seems very adventurous. Still, I listened to the CD in full and several times—and I like the music and the performance! For most transcriptions, I naturally prefer the original. But for myself I found some real highlights in this collection—namely the genuine harp works by Thomas, Pierné, and Parish-Alvars—and I’m sure I will return to these pieces again!


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