Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Henselt - Variations For Piano and Orchestra

If there was ever a pianist afflicted with compulsive piano practicing, it had to be Adolph von Henselt (1814 - 1889), a German pianist, teacher and composer. He would practice ten  hours a day, read the Bible he had on his piano music stand while he did finger exercises, and when he gave a concert he had a dummy piano offstage to practice on between the selections he played and at intermission.  He practiced so much that he would dampen the strings of his piano with quills so the sound wouldn't get on his nerves.

And a nervous man he was, at least before and during a concert. He had such a bad case of stage fright every time he had to play in public that he would get physically sick. He would have to be pushed out onto the stage to start his recitals, play through the selection and then literally run back off the stage.  He toured extensively in Germany in 1836. He realized that he didn't have the nerves to be a traveling virtuoso, so he settled in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1838. He had previously played there before the Czar, who took a liking to his music and to Henselt.  By the time Henselt had turned 33, his touring days were over. He gave only a handful of concerts after that.

all of the compulsive practice gave Henselt an astounding technique. He was most well known for an incredible hand span ion the keyboard. Through diligent (and compulsive) stretching of his hand and fingers his relatively small hands were able to extend a twelfth. His left hand could play the chord C-E-G-C-F without resorting to the use of the pedal or arppegiating the chord. He wrote etudes for the piano in all the major and minor keys, and like Chopin's etudes each one addressed a specific problem of technique.  Much of his reputation was because of these etudes, some of which drove most pianists to despair.

Henselt also composed a few chamber pieces, a piano concerto that Anton Rubinstein finally gave up trying to learn (along with the etudes) because, "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."

Henselt became a great influence in the musical life of Russia after he moved there.  He spent the rest of his life in St. Petersburg, only leaving occasionally for a trip back to his native Germany.  He taught piano at the conservatory and later became Inspector General of all the music instruction institutions in Russia. He influenced and helped bring about the Russian 'school' of piano playing that was well-represented  by pianists such as Rachmaninoff.

The Variations For Piano and Orchestra was written in 1840 after his move to Russia. The theme that is the basis of the variations is an aria from an opera by Meyerbeer called Robert le Diable.  It is of course a work for a virtuoso pianist, but the orchestral writing also shows that Henselt could write music for more than just the piano.  Henselt also gave up his career as a composer early on. After he finished his piano concerto in f minor, he wrote virtually nothing else for the rest of his life.

By all indications, Henselt was a complicated man. He was a terror as a piano teacher as he could tolerate no imperfection or mistakes. Patience was not one of his virtues. But yet he was highly influential and helped create a whole national school of Russian virtuoso piano players.  He composed relatively little, yet his compositions show the talent of a master. He was one of the greatest pianist that ever touched the instrument, and equal of Liszt said some.  Yet he had such a bad case of stage fright that he concertized for only a short time.  He will in many ways remain an enigma. After hearing his music, it makes me wonder what he could have done had his personality allowed him to. But at the same time, it is probably a small miracle that he managed to leave the few excellent pieces that we have.

Henselt - Variations For Piano and Orchestra

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