About this Recording
GP661 - HENSELT, A. von: Piano Works (Gallo)
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Adolf von Henselt (1814–1889)
Piano Works


Atop a small stone plinth in a central square of the Bavarian town of Schwabach sits a bronze statue of a severe, tail-coated figure with a pointed beard. His outstretched arms are suspended in mid-air, and his fingers are positioned ready to strike a chord on a piano keyboard. A plaque tells us that this gentleman is the pianist and composer Adolf von Henselt, who was born in that town on 9 May 1814. Praised by Liszt for his unequalled cantabile playing, Henselt belonged to a galaxy of star pianists who were all of a similar age. These included Chopin, Schumann, Thalberg and, of course, Liszt.

Although Henselt began his musical studies on the violin, he soon changed to the piano and made spectacularly rapid progress. It was as a child that he developed a strong and permanent affinity with the musical Romanticism of Carl Maria von Weber. After studying with Johann Nepomuk Hummel in Weimar and Simon Sechter in Vienna, he withdrew from the limelight for two years in order to perfect his unique way of playing widely spaced chords without recourse to the sustaining pedal. In view of the permanent damage that Robert Schumann reportedly did to his own hands while experimenting with stretching exercises, Henselt must surely have been taking a huge risk in persevering with his idiosyncratic technique. But his determination seems to have paid off, for even Liszt is said to have blanched at certain aspects of Henselt’s piano playing that bordered on the reckless.

For all his prowess at the keyboard, Henselt always suffered badly from stage fright, and when he was 22 he suffered a nervous breakdown. Diagnosed with severe strain from overwork, he was advised to take things easy for a while, so he travelled to Carlsbad (Karlovy Váry) in the hope that the pleasures of this Bohemian spa town would act as a tonic and aid his recuperation. Nineteenth-century sources maintain that he met Chopin here, but there is scant evidence to back up such a claim. In other respects, however, the year 1836 did prove to be auspicious for Henselt because he made the acquaintance of Rosalie Vogel, the wife of a Weimar court physician. By degrees, she impressed herself upon him so much that they became musical, and then physical, soulmates. As might be imagined, Dr Vogel was far from pleased, but he was powerless to prevent the lovestruck pair from marrying in the autumn of the following year.

In 1838 Henselt moved to St Petersburg after making a great impression on the Tsar’s daughter, Maria Pavlovna, who like himself was a pupil of Hummel’s. His new appointment coincided with a flurry of compositional activity that was fuelled by his continuing enchantment with Rosalie. The two sets of Études, Op. 2 and Op. 5, date from this period. If Henselt’s name is even vaguely familiar to present-day concertgoers, it is entirely because of the sixth piece from the Op. 2 set, which still hangs on precariously in the repertoire of a few soloists. This number, entitled ‘Si oiseau j’étais, à toi je volerais’ (Were I a bird, to you would I fly), covers the same ground as the German folk tale ‘Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär, und auch zwei Flügel hätt’, flög’ ich zu dir’, which Robert Schumann set more than once. Incidentally, Schumann was disturbed by the French titles of these Études, which he considered to be so quintessentially German in spirit. Doubtless he overlooked the possibility that Henselt, in the midst of his passion for Rosalie, had employed French as the language of love and romance. Cultured Russians, of course, also affected to speak French, and Henselt’s influence was by now making itself felt in St Petersburg. For instance, the second Étude from Op. 2 ‘Pensez un peu à moi qui pense toujours à vous’, seems to have partially inspired Balakirev’s Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs. The Étude Op. 2, No. 3 ‘Exauce mes voeux’ (Fulfil my desires) is an exercise in rapid descending broken chords, while Op. 2, No. 4, ‘Repos d’amour’ (Repose of love) is a Mendelssohnian ‘song without words’ that also bears some resemblance to the second of the Trois Romances pour le piano, Op. 11, by Henselt’s friend and colleague Clara Schumann.

In all but two cases, the Études, Op. 5, also have descriptive titles, but here Henselt mainly employs his native German rather than French. The third Étude, a ferocious study in arpeggios, is called ‘Hexentanz’ (Witches’ dance) and requires a stretch of an octave and a third. ‘Danklied nach Sturm’ (Thanksgiving after a storm), the sixth of the set, opens with a richly harmonised chorale, and the untitled ninth piece, marked Allegro con leggerezza, is a Chopinesque study in rapid finger work. Not for nothing did Schumann dub Henselt the ‘Chopin of the North’. Also dating from 1838 is the Rhapsodie, Op. 4, a work in two contrasted sections, which originally bore the title ‘Erinnerung und Freundschaft’ (Remembrance and friendship).

Over the next few years Henselt’s public performances became fewer in number and he also wrote less music. His time was largely taken up with teaching in the imperial household and travelling throughout Russia as Inspector General of music schools and teaching academies. Along with his colleague Anton Rubinstein, he was important in establishing a truly Russian school of piano playing, which was later so notably represented by Sergey Rachmaninov. Among the characteristic pieces that Henselt did actually find time to compose at this time are the two Nocturnes, Op. 6. The first of these, marked Moderato con molto agitatione [sic], carries the title ‘Schmerz im Glück’ (Sorrow in happiness). Ten varied pieces are collected together to form Henselt’s Op. 13. The second of these, an Étude in the form of a gently rocking barcarolle, is aptly called ‘La gondola’. In 1840, he dedicated ‘Wiegenlied’, Op. 45, to Tsar Nicholas I’s daughter, the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna, who was married to Maximilian de Beauharnais, Duke of Leuchtenberg. This decidedly Schumannesque lullaby includes a request for performers to ‘change the pedal at least twice in every bar’.

In 1889 Henselt (now sporting an aristocratic ‘von’ before his surname), died in the Silesian spa town of Warmbrunn (Cieplice). An obituary in The Musical Times mentions his English visits of 1852 and 1867, and reports that during the second one he refrained from playing in public. This reluctance to perform supports the view that he never fully overcame his chronic stage fright. However, despite this handicap and his heavy workload in Russia, he did compose a small number of works during the 1850s, including the two gracious Petites Valses, Op. 28, the Petite Romance in B flat minor and the lyrical Valse mélancolique, Op. 36.

Henselt’s identification with place is apparent from the transcriptions included on this disc. In addition to demonstrating that his youthful admiration for Weber never dimmed, the reworking of Invitation to the Dance also illustrates a continuing attachment to the traditions of his Austro-German cultural roots, as indeed does Transcription of a Waltz by Johann Strauss I. The musical tastes of his adopted homeland are to the fore in the Romance russe, Op. 33b, a transcription of Dargomizhsky’s song, Ya vsyo yeshcho yego lyublyo (I still love him), that Henselt made in Paris in 1855–56.

Anthony Short

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