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À la Française
Duets for Harmonium d’Art and Piano in French Romanticism
Jan Hennig (harmonium)
Ernst Breidenbach (piano)
rec. 2016, Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt

I read somewhere recently that the Harmonium was a “once popular but now completely forgotten” instrument. I would certainly disagree with the latter part of that statement, but the first is definitely true, as the wholescale neglect of the vast repertory written for it during the 19th century especially by French and Belgian composers, testifies. Sadly, since it has been almost completely superseded by the plethora of cheap electronic instruments which require less effort to play and maintain, the Harmonium’s distinctive sound – close to the accordion, but with a greater level of flexibility across the pitch spectrum – is rarely heard. Hearing it in duet with a 19th century French piano is a real novelty.

If the Harmonium is largely forgotten, the Harmonium d’Art is doubly so. Patented by the French instrument maker Alexandre-François Debain in 1842, the Harmonium (or pump organ) had an immediate impact on salon and church life of late 19th century Paris, and led to other manufacturers building and developing the instrument in considerable numbers. Victor Mustel, recognising its potential, decided to establish his own business as a Harmonium manufacturer, but since the name remained the property of Debain, he patented his modified, two-manual model in 1854 as the “Orgue à double-expression”. Mustel went on to invent and patent the Celesta in 1886, and in the 1890s started to combine the two instruments, the lower keyboard playing the Harmonium and the upper the Celesta. A 1902 model of this “Orgue-Célesta” was exported to Germany and it is this instrument, restored after war-time damage, which we hear on this recording.

We hear the Celesta in all its tinkling delightfulness in the first work on this fascinating programme, the Marche nuptiale by Marie Prestat. The Harmonium largely just plays sustained chords to the piano’s solidly marching theme, with the Celesta adding some fairy-like wedding bells. All a little silly, musically, but a fascinating sound all the same. Marie Prestat herself is an interesting character. The first woman ever to win the prize for counterpoint and fugue at the Paris Conservatoire – doing so on five separate occasions – she was a favoured pupil of Franck, and later taught at Guilmant’s Schola Cantorum. Her works frame the programme, and with the closing Prelude and Fugue in G minor we hear something rather more significant in both musical quality and substance. Here the two instruments are more intimately intertwined, the delicate piano figurations counterbalancing the sustained harmonies from the Harmonium. There is a pleasing ebb and flow through the Prelude, with Jan Hennig and Ernst Breidenbach showing a very impressive level of unity of thought in the way they handle this. The piano sets off the sprightly but serious-minded fugue, the subject of which owes more than a passing debt of gratitude to Bach’s C minor BWV549 Fugue, the Harmonium following along but sounding decidedly wheezy against the piano’s crisp articulation.

Few of the composers - and probably none of the music - on this disc will be familiar, but all contributed significantly to the Harmonium/Piano duet repertory. Gounod, for example wrote several works for this combination, but the Fantaisie sur l’Hymn National Russe was not one of them; the version included on this disc was actually made by Guilmant. The Harmonium intones in octaves the famous hymn (famous from Tchaikovsky’s 1812) and the piano expands on it before the two instruments pair off, the Harmonium often reinforcing the piano’s statements of the theme, occasionally adding a few Celesta tinkles, and the piano adding arpeggios and other flourishes. Beyond that it would seem the novelty of the tune (the excellently researched booklet notes point to the “French fascination of the time with Russia”) and the weighty solemnity provided by the Harmonium is sufficient to sustain interest over nine minutes of music.

All the works are described as “world premiere recordings”, and this does not surprise me since, musically, it is all quite dull. There is some charming music – notably Ernest Poulain’s playful Berceuse – but most rely on limited invention and strict formal organisation to focus attention on an aural novelty; Adolphe Blanc’s Sonate is a classic example of the formal organisation of sparse and unexceptional material which, at 22 minutes in length, probably stretches its resources a good 20 minutes longer than necessary. But Hennig and Breidenbach work well together, the recording has a pleasing sense of reality about it, and the admittedly decidedly dated but unequivocally Parisian sound of these two instruments in duet (the piano, by the way, dates from 1858 and was made in Paris by Erard) makes this a fascinating disc for those whose tastes run in that direction.

Marc Rochester

Marie PRESTAT (1871-1933) Marche nuptiale, Op.5 [5:54]
Ernest POULAIN (?) Méditation, Op.75 [6:59]
Charles LORET (1837-1870) Berceuse [3:35]
Albert SEITZ (1872-1937) Lamento, Op.45 [10:28]
Adolphe BLANC (1828-1885) Sonate, Op.55 [21:55]
Georges SPETZ (1844-1914) Albumblatt [2:34]
Laetitia SARI (1822-1893) Causerie, Op.23 [3:38]
Ignace LEYBACH (1817-1891) Polonaise [4:49]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) Fantaisie sur l’Hymn National Russe [9:16]
Marie PRESTAT Prélude et Fugue, Op.28 [5:40]



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