Sunday 29 January 2017

Music of a forgotten master: piano works of Adolf von Henselt

Adolf von Henselt - Daniel Grimwood
Adolf von Henselt piano works; Daniel Grimwood; Edition Peters
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A showcase for the music of a forgotten talent, one of the great influences on the Russian piano school

I have to confess that until being sent this disc, I had never heard of Adolf von Henselt. But this disc on Edition Peters presents us with nearly 80 minutes of engaging piano music played by Daniel Grimwood, of a style and technical difficulty which puts the composer on a par with Chopin and Liszt.

So who was Adolf von Henselt. Born plain Adolf Henselt in a town in Bavaria, he studied with Hummel and settled in St Petersburg where he added the von to his name, and became one of the founders of the Russian school of pianism, one of his pupils was Zverev, Rachmaninov's teacher and Rachmaninov rated Henselt highly.

Daniel Grimwood
Daniel Grimwood
During his life Henselt was known and revered, spoken of in the same breath as Liszt and Chopin, his music played by such luminaries as Clara Schumann (who premiered his F minor Piano Concerto), Liszt, Rachmaninov and Chopin. Yet we have somehow lost touch with his music. It perhaps does not help that he retired from the concert platform before he was 40, suffering from profound stage fright, and that his duties as a revered teacher in Russia meant that his composing in later life rather tailed off in quantity (though not in quality).

Adolf von Henselt was just four years younger than Chopin, and three years younger than Liszt and his piano music does indeed breath the same air as these composers. The opening Variations de concert sur le motif de l'opera 'L'elisir d'amore' is a substantial concert work in the manner of Liszt's early operatic transcriptions, but Grimwood follows this with a sequence of smaller works where Henselt combines elements of the salon with some remarkably inventive harmony, meaning that beneath the great charm there are elements which intrigue (In his booklet note Daniel Grimwood sees the Deux petite Valses as looking forward to Scriabin).

There are four large scale works on the disc, as well as the Donizetti variations there is the Tableau muscal: Fantaisie dur un air bohemien-russe, another Lisztian piece where Henselt wanders freely and even evokes Rachmaninov in the bigger passages. The Ballade, Op 31 is perhaps where we can hear the mature Henselt, written in 1854 (when he was 40) moving away from the earlier Lisztian pieces. It is still technically complex, but the difficulties are not necessarily there for show. The music is still pleasing grateful and melodic, but with some terrific purple passages. The disc finishes with another big work the Grande valse 'L'aurere boreale'  which also dates from 1854. As Grimwood points out, the work sounds very Russian, as with much of Henselt's writing he reaches climaxes by thickening textures to create a real richness of sonority.

Amongst the smaller works, the four impromptus form a notable group, though they were written over a considerable period of time rather than as a group.

With all of Adolf von Henselt's music on the disc you can play the reminiscence game, as some pieces evoke his famous contemporaries whilst others look forward to the Russian pianism of later generations (Balakirev was much influenced). Daniel Grimwood plays the music with great skill and clear affection, so that we can appreciate Adolf von Henselt's music for its own very real virtues.

Adolf von Henselt (1814-1889) - Variations de concert sur le motif de l’opéra “L’elisire d’amore”, Op. 1 in E major
Adolf von Henselt - Deux petites Valses, Op. 28, No. 1 in F major
Adolf von Henselt - Deux petites Valses, Op. 28, No. 2 in C major
Adolf von Henselt - Mon chant du cygne (“Mein Schwanengesang”) WoO in A flat major
Adolf von Henselt - Tableau musical. Fantaisie sur un air bohémien-russe, WoO (Op. 16) in A flat major
Adolf von Henselt - Deux Nocturnes, Op. 6, No. 1 “Schmerz im Glück” in E flat minor
Adolf von Henselt - Deux Nocturnes, Op. 6, No. 2 “La Fontaine” in F major
Adolf von Henselt - Valse mélancolique, Op. 36 in D minor
Adolf von Henselt - Ballade, Op. 31 in B flat major
Adolf von Henselt - Impromptu No. 1, Op. 7 in C minor
Adolf von Henselt - Impromptu No. 2, Op. 17 in F minor
Adolf von Henselt - Impromptu No. 3, Op. 34 “Illusion perdue” in B flat minor
Adolf von Henselt - Impromptu No. 4, Op. 37 in B minor
Adolf von Henselt - Vöglein-Etüde (“Si oiseau j’etais”) Op. 2, No. 6 in F sharp major
Adolf von Henselt - Berceuse “Wiegenlied”, WoO (Op. 45) in G flat major
Adolf von Henselt - Grande Valse “L’aurore boréale” (“Das Nordlicht”), Op. 30 in C sharp minor
Daniel Grimwood(piano)
Recorded at Markgrafebsaal Schwabach
Edition Peters EPS005 1CD [78.07]
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