Solo - Version for Harp - Schubert Complete Impromptus op. 90 und op. 142

First Complete Recording of all Impromptus for Harp


What does Schubert's music mean to you as a harpist?

As a very young musician, I already admired Schubert's music very much and was always sorry that he didn't write a single work for the harp. Yet I thought I could often hear the sound of the harp, particularly in his songs. Often, the harp actually plays a role in some of the songs' texts, such as the "Haffner" songs, and other songs such as "An die Leier", "Nachtstück", "Liedler" or "Auf dem Wasser zu singen” with its glittering waves.

But particularly in the Impromptus for piano there are many passages where it seems to me that many pianists are literally trying to imitate the sound of the harp.

Originally, it wasn't my intention to record all eight impromptus. At first, I just concentrated on nos. 2, 3 and 4 D899. But it gradually became a fascinating undertaking which I couldn't get out of my mind. Approaching the depth of Schubert's music on an instrument other than the one originally intended was definitely the biggest challenge in my musical life to date. I am fully aware that I cannot fulfil the usual, purely pianistic expectations, but I will be happy if I can arouse the listener's interest and maybe enable him to appreciate a new quality and depth of sound.

What actually characterises the difference in sound between the piano and the harp?

Of course the sound quality of the harp differs from that of the piano: the notes are produced directly by the fingers, which I see as an advantage, because one can create a particularly lively kind of resonance. The disadvantage is that there can be some extraneous noises, particularly during passages of repeated notes, as the vibration of the string is interrupted by the fingers...this requires very subtle re-articulation at the last moment.

Why did Schubert write virtually nothing for the harp?

Along with the piano and other keyboard instruments, harps and guitars are the only instruments that can be described as harmony instruments. But unlike the harpsichord and the organ, they allow for continuous dynamic shading, in the same way as the piano.

We now know that in Schubert's time, it was quite common to use the guitar to accompany his songs, but not the single-action harp of the time. I am convinced that this is partly due to the technical quality of the instruments of the day, but also to the limited harmonic possibilities of the single-action harp. Sebastian Erard developed the double-action harp (corresponding to the modem-day concert harp) in 1811 in Paris, but but it was only widely accepted very much later. Debussy still composed his "Danses sacree et profane" pour la harpe chromatique - a chromatic harp that was very difficult to play because of its enormous span. Just imagine the open mechanism of a piano with chromatically arranged strings! My teacher Pierre Jamet was the first harpist to play Claude Debussy's works to the composer on a double-action harp and, together with this genius, he worked out a new technique of sound production which gave the sound special depth by preparing the finger attack on the strings.

Did you come across any problems while adapting Schubert's musical language for the harp?

Of course! Examining his music occupied me for months and I often doubted whether I would ever do justice to his compositions on the harp. First, I listened to almost all the recordings by the great pianists. That was a master class in itself!! I cannot advise all harpists enough to take a closer look at piano music played at the highest level - extensively and with the appropriate scores, preferably in an original edition.

It was very interesting for me to see how differently the pianists interpreted Schubert's pieces. There are interpretations with enormously virtuosic and breathtaking tempi which we harpists can only dream of. Other pianists play them much more moderately, with very detailed tonal shading and changes of tempo, especially in Schubert's typical turns from minor to major and back, which for me belong to the most shattering musical moments of great music.
To be honest, I feel considerably more moved by this kind of music-making.

Margit Anna Süss Solo
Zeitenwandel Spohr, Bach, Haydn, Hamel, Hindemith


1) What is your new recording ”Changing Times” all about?

I would like to show what music has had to say through the ages and how this can be demonstrated on the harp. In order to offer a more contrasting listening experience, I have purposely avoided a chronological presentation. The pieces on this CD are not exclusively original works, as it was more important for me to present compositionally significant works. More and more frequently these days, single movements instead of complete sonatas or works are being recorded, bite-size sweets of a specific flavour as it were, in order to put the listener in a pleasant ”background music” mood, rather than to demand attentive listening. This might be justifiable for beginners in classical music, but it is not in keeping with my idea of what I want to communicate through music.

2) You have only recorded works by German composers. Is that a coincidence?

No. I am planning a larger album after the recording with German works, a series with recordings of European composers, presenting works by French, Italian, English and perhaps Russian composers.

3) Is it possible to perform J.S. Bach’s music on the harp in a way that makes musical sense?

That is a good question! I chose the Lute Suites because the sound of the harp seems to me to be very close to that of the lute, certainly closer than that of the violin, although the Violin Partitas are also played on the harp. For a long time, I virtually banned Baroque music from my repertoire because I was bothered by the long resonance of the harp and the blurring of individual notes, particularly in the left hand. At first, I tried it out on a harp with an extra muting pedal, specially developed by Nicanor Zabaleta for the Horngacher company. The result was that the entire sound of the harp was drier, as the whole bass region was muted. It didn’t help clear articulation and phrasing either, as consecutive notes were almost as blurred as before. Not until I discovered selective finger damping did my interpretations begin to approach my idea of how Baroque music should sound on the harp. This of course also influences the playing of bass continuo parts in Baroque chamber music.

4) What exactly is selective finger damping?

I’ll have to expand a bit on that. Normally in harp technique, individual notes are not just plucked, but prepared in chord fingerings, so that the fingers support each other.We don’t actually play until the fingers are in place. With selective finger damping, if for example four fingers play a sequence of notes consecutivly, I put the finger, or sometimes thumb, that has just played back on the string it played at the same time as the next finger plays, and so on. This must happen very supply, so that rather than abrupt damping a mutual handing over of notes takes place. One note replaces the next, without ringing on, as in legato playing on the piano. Selective finger damping is of course not always possible and should just be used in places that make musical sense, particularly in the left hand, as blurring occurs much more there.

5) Do you use selective finger damping in other compositions as well?

Yes, of course, especially in very articulate works such as is the case with Haydn. By using selective finger damping, I get a more varied result and can bring out the slurs and articulations etc. much more clearly. That is why I didn’t record an arrangement of Haydn’s Variations, but deliberately stuck to the original. With the exception of a small chromatic passage, which is unplayable on the harp, I have not made any changes.

6) You have chosen works by Spohr to represent the Romantic era. What is his compositional legacy for the harp?

On the one hand, Spohr is a romantic but on the other, feels himself bound by Classical tradition. After his marriage to the harpist Dorette Scheidler who, in his autobiography, he described as a great virtuoso on her instrument, he wrote many works for violin and harp. In some of these, the harp is tuned a semitone lower, as it sounds better in ”flat” keys, and the violin remains in the brighter ”sharp” key. That means that a sonata in which the violin plays for example in D major, was notated in E flat major in the harp part but, because of the lower tuning, sounded in D major. Today this is no longer necessary, as the mechanical improvements to our instrument allow a good sound in ”sharp” keys too. I have recorded his only two solo works, op. 35 and op. 36, written shortly after one another in 1807.

7) Paul Hindemith’s music is often considered purely artificial. What is your opinion on that?

I think Hindemith’s music is often completely underestimated. I actually consider him one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century! If his music were purely artificial, it would be emotionally empty and not accessible to the soul. But it’s just the opposite!! Not to mention his excellent instrumentation! He knew precisely how to write for the instruments he composed for and seems to have looked closely at the harmonic possibilities of the harp and their respective pedalling.

8) When was Hindemith’s Harp Sonata written?

Hindemith emigrated in 1934 and spent long periods every year in Ankara, where he had been asked by the Turkish government to organise local musical life. From 1937 to 1939, he went on concert tours to the USA and lived in Switzerland before moving to the USA in 1940. The Harp Sonata was written during these eventful times, in 1939. In less than three days!

9) What effect does Paul Hindemith’s Harp Sonata have on you?

The last movement, composed after a poem by Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty, who lived from 1748 to 1776, arouses deepest emotions in me. In this poem, that Hölty wrote just a few years before his death, he asks his friends to hang his small harp behind the altar, so that it can sound of its own accord, like an Aeolian harp. Hölty, who was brought up in Marienstein Abbey near Hanover, only lived to the age of 28. His harp still hangs today behind the altar of the Abbey church (even if it is allegedly no longer the original). I feel that there are already signs of this poem in the first two movements. Maybe the first movement, with its broad chordal sounds, suggests the atmosphere of a large cathedral, whose space is filled with the sound of a great organ and interrupted again and again by the merriment of children’s ball games, my metaphor for the second movement. This image of children playing ball demands a certain lightness, which forms a wonderful contrast to the rather melancholy character of the first movement.

10) On your recording you recite the poem as you play. But that isn’t asked for in the score.

No, that was my own idea. For years, I have worked on connecting the text and the notes. Music is a language, and in hardly any other work for harp is this expressed more clearly. Of course, this is my own interpreta tion and I am sure there are other ways to combine the music and the text.

11) Do you also perform it this way in concert?

Yes, very often, but only in smaller concert halls or churches, so that the spoken word can be understood. But it is very important to me that the text is also printed in the programme, so that it can really be understood properly. I have seen again and again how the text is completely ignored by performers. I think this is a great shame because without the text one is not conscious of the true depth of the work and I would like to reach the soul of the listener better. That is the real reason we make music…

12) Would you like your harp to be hung in a church after your death?

Oh yes, the idea of being able to carry on communicating with my beloved harp in this way would make me very happy!!!

13) How did you come across Peter Michael Hamel’s music?

Peter Michael Hamel lives very near to us in Aschau in the Chiemgau, was a fellow student of my husband’s many years ago and a Bialas Competition prize-winner in 2008. One can clearly hear the influence of Far Eastern music, particularly Indian. All the other composers on my recording are clearly products of one particular historico-cultural development, one shaped by Western, Christian cultural thinking. In these times of globalisation, there are many different trends and influences from the Orient, and from Far Eastern countries. Music of different cultures meets, as in the case of Hamel, who has studied Indian music for a long time. The sound of the Indian Sitar, which is related to that of the harp, is clearly audible. Hamel, who wrote the piece for his sister, a harpist, shows in his miniatures how cleverly he can handle the

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