Friday, February 12, 2021

Henselt - Piano Concerto In F Minor, Opus 16

 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 on 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.  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. Clara Schumann gave the premiere of the concerto in 1844, with a few other pianists tackling the difficulties for performance. Henselt performed the concerto but rarely. 

I. Allegro patetico - The concerto begins with the orchestra playing themes that will be heard again when the soloist enters, typical of a concerto of this era. The opening orchestral exposition is the only time the piano does not play, thus making stamina an integral part of the writing. Filled with every kind of piano configuration, the music sounds well, a great example of an early Romantic era concerto and many of the difficulties in execution aren't obvious to the listener without a score. Even in the more lyrical parts of the movement, the soloist has to deal with virtuoso piano writing.  After the exposition, parts of the development has the orchestra play a lyrical variant of a theme, after which the piano enters and expands on it. The recapitulation goes through the usual repeat of the themes.  The movement comes to a close in a coda where the piano plays a cascade of descending octaves and the orchestra takes up the first theme that has been transposed to a major key. 

II. Larghetto - The lyrical second movement brings a change of mood to the concerto, but even in the most lyrical passages, Henselt writes mitt-fulls of notes. The middle section of the movement grows more impassioned before the lyricism returns to end the movement with a segue directly to the finale.

III.  Allegro agitato - The entrance of the soloist in this movement is in thundering octaves which leads to the theme of the rondo.

This concerto is an attractive piece of music, and Henselt shows that he was more than an average composer for the orchestra. But it will always be most well known for the horrendously difficult piano part. 

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