Adolf von Henselt: Piano Concerto, op. 16

performed by Lev Vinocour and the Radio Symphony Orchestra Wien under Johannes Wildner

Find out the secret of Henselt’s hands.

Franz Liszt, to his pupils

(cover image by Will van Wingerden)

What pianist in history excelled at the piano works of Chopin, composed and performed his own devilishly challenging pieces, was admired if not envied by the likes of Schumann and Liszt, and revered by Rachmaninoff?

Henselt is so hot right now.

Not Liszt

Adolf von Henselt was born on May 9 or 12, 1814 in Schwabach, in Bavaria. He precociously began the violin at age three, and piano at age five under Frau Geheimrat Josepha von Flad. If you want to know a little bit about her, I hope your German is decent. She studied under Abbé Georg Joseph Vogler along with her far more famous classmates Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Henselt would later go on to study, with some financial assistance from King Ludwig I of Bavaria (and I have no idea how that came about), with Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He moved to Vienna in 1832 (still in his teens) to study with Simon Sechter, who would also teach Anton Bruckner.

He toured around Germany, and had a good run as concert pianist before marrying in Breslau in 1837 and finding himself in Russia the following year, where he made his career, really. Wikipedia says that “At one time Henselt was second to Anton Rubinstein in the direction of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.” If you want another interesting story about a non-Russian ending up in Mother Russia, go read about John Field, an Irish composer who basically invented the nocturne and made his career in Russia. Drawing a connection between the two, Wikipedia says:

Henselt’s influence on the next generation of Russian pianists is immense. Henselt’s playing and teaching greatly influenced the Russian school of music, developing from seeds planted by John Field. Sergei Rachmaninoff held him in very great esteem, and considered him one of his most important influences.

Unfortunately, despite all his talents (Liszt also is claimed to have remarked that “I could have had velvet paws like that if I had wanted to,”), Henselt stopped composing by the age of 30, and had stopped performing in public by the age of 33, even though he lived to the ripe old age of 75.

There’s a fascinating story Jeremy Nicholas shares (in his copious and wonderful notes at Hyperion) about Henselt’s exceptional talents and his stage fright. The long paragraph begins:

Of all the great pianists (and there’s no doubt that he was one of the great players of the last century) he suffered more than any from stage fright.

He goes on to recount the story of how Alexander Dreyschock eavesdropped one morning, listening from a stairwell to Henselt playing to himself, and then when Dreyschock could stand it no longer and went in to ask what he was playing (a composition of his own), Henselt was unable to play with any of the same magic.

His sole piano concerto dates from the mid 1840s, being premiered by Clara Schumann herself in 1844, but not published until 1847. The work is in three movements, with a playing time of about a half hour, the first movement making up not quite half of that.

  1. Allegro patetico – Religioso – Reprise
  2. Larghetto
  3. Allegro agitato

There are going to be lots of quotes in this article, forgive me. Nicholas does such a wonderful writeup on this piece, and I am absolutely blown away by how remarkably beautiful a work this is, so that leaves the question of why it’s so rarely performed and recorded. Nicholas gives insight into this, too, if you’re not familiar with the reputation of the Henselt concerto:

Even the legendary Anton Rubinstein had to admit defeat; after working on the études and F minor Concerto for a few days, he realized ‘it was a waste of time, for they were based on an abnormal formation of the hand. In this respect, Henselt, like Paganini, was a freak.’

So it’s hard, and uncomfortable, and challenging, and even to the ear, sounds incredibly virtuosic, to say nothing of the …. ergonomics or execution.

The opening of this work, with its dramatic three-note opening and everything that follows, at least to me, gives the impression that not only will the work be a dramatic, meaty piece, but that I must be witnessing something monumental, and even in a recording, there’s a sense that something really special is unfolding. It does feel like an absolutely miraculous blend of the standard mid-century Romanticism (Schumann, Chopin, etc.), along with the epic breadth and largeness that would come later in the form of Rachmaninoff and others.

I again quote Nicholas:

The first two bars of the F minor Concerto contain not only the three ascending notes which provide a motif for each of the three first-movement subjects but, in its three descending bass notes, a figure which when transposed to the key of C sharp minor reveals one of music’s most famous openings. Raymond Lewenthal (who provided the first recording of the work) was not the first to wonder whether it is a coincidence or a conscious salute to Henselt that Rachmaninov’s Op 2 No 3 Prelude commences with that same doom-laden phrase. There is no doubt that Rachmaninov knew Henselt’s work intimately and played the concerto when a young man.

The piano doesn’t enter immediately, waiting instead to make its dramatic entry until after the orchestra has delightfully set up the material. It’s a substantial orchestral introduction, but two and a half minutes in, the piano makes its entry, taking those first thee notes as a jumping-off point. This first movement is really everything… everything you could want in a piano concerto. There is roar and fire from the piano, but also breathtaking Romantic melodiousness and expression, a lyrical smoothness akin to Chopin but far more exciting. I really feel like if this were a single movement fantasia of some kind, moving from F minor to F major, that it would stand on its own very well as a one-movement work. It’s just stunning.

Thankfully, though, we have two more movements, each around 8 minutes. Nicholas says of this movement:

This is firmly in the Romantic mould, ‘tempo rubato’ et al, and, for its melodious charm, its variety of emotion and altogether original conception, ranks among the most felicitous slow movements of the genre.

If this piece weren’t so awkward or challenging or whatever, there is absolutely no question it would be as ubiquitous as the Schumann or Chopin concertos. The piano’s soliloquy in the second movement is as mellifluous and fragrant and delicate as anything Chopin ever wrote, and we can only imagine what it sounded like for the composer himself, with his ‘velvet paws,’ to play it. What’s all the more satisfying about it is that it doesn’t just stand on its beauty, though it well could. There’s an exploration of other emotions and landscapes beyond just being pretty, and this makes for a deeply satisfying central movement, one that keeps the listener engaged and aware of the overall trajectory of the piece, not just the second of three courses.

The finale is immediately quite Russian, with strings and flute answering the low voices in a colorful conversation that may bring Tchaikovsky to mind. It’s full of charm and finesse. The second subject is finally, in all of this beautiful tumult, something a little more dainty and understated. I can’t quote all of the wonderful things Nicholas says about this piece, but he says that “The left-hand triplets alone would knock the stuffing out of the average conservatory professor and the writing throughout is extraordinarily energetic, requiring enormous stamina and athleticism,” and ultimately that:

The demands of the solo part are immense – though not by any means unpianistic, unplayable, inelegant or unconquerable – but they are the kind of difficulties that an audience cannot readily appreciate without a score. … The soloist has to work very hard indeed for effects that are not always apparent.

So it’s a lot of work for the pianist to pull off, and I wish I could comment more on that. People talk about how Tchaikovsky’s writing for the piano differs so much from Rachmaninoff’s the latter being very natural, and how Schoenberg’s is absolutely not concerned with matters of comfort or naturalness. Henselt, I don’t know, but I can say that this finale is both heart-melting and pulse-quickening, and we need more pianists with the guts of Vinocour and Hamelin to present this piece to audiences because it is one of the most exciting things I’ve listened to. It speaks for itself.

Really, I am blown away by discovering what is such a quintessentially Romantic piano concerto that is for technical reasons still largely undiscovered. I may hate on the Chopin piano concertos, but not because I’m sick of Romantic-era music. This is stunning.

This article is long enough. We’ll hit on a few chamber pieces this weekend and see a few much more obscure and modern piano concerti next week, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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