> Henselt, Alkan Piano Concertos [AB]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Adolf von HENSELT (1814-1849)

Piano Concerto in F minor Opus16
Variations de Concert Opus 11
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1812-1888)

Concerto da Camera in C sharp minor Op 10 No 2
Concerto da Camera in A minor Op 10 No 1
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Recorded in Govan Town Hall, Glasgow. December 1993
HYPERION CDA66717 [69.56]


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This is number 7 in the very successful Hyperion Series ‘The Romantic Piano Concerto’ and like the others I have heard it contains interesting material which is seldom played. I have pondered on why a ‘Romantic Symphony’ series has not been produced and came to the conclusion that such a series would be unlikely to produce such fascinating material. The piano concerto after Beethoven became less of a concertante piece and more like a ‘battle’ between the piano and the orchestra with which it does not blend.

The nineteenth and early twentieth century produced in addition to the normal multiple media composers a whole series of virtuoso pianists who also composed for the piano and produced material primarily for use in their concert performances. Liszt was probably the best known of this type of composer, and Henselt and Alkan are also good examples. Although some composers produced romantic-orientated symphonies, in general the symphony is seen as a serious, intellectually-based work where the composer knew he would be compared with Beethoven. The contrary is the case for the many romantic piano concertos which are designed to show of the skill of the pianist and be pleasing to the audience by the use of catchy tunes.

Henselt was born in Bavaria and became one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century – helped by almost non-stop practice (however his almost pathological shyness resulted in him seldom playing in public). He wrote a series of studies which became famous and otherwise his one Piano Concerto was his most notable piece. All his works are staggeringly difficult to play, but the Piano Concerto is also very tuneful and well written – it is vaguely reminiscent of Thalberg.

Marc-André Hamelin is just the right pianist for this concerto; his technique is outstanding even by today’s high standards and he plays with verve and commitment. Listening to this record makes one ask the obvious question "Why is such an enjoyable and interesting work so neglected?" The same question could also be asked of his ‘Variations de Concert’ which is the first recording of this most attractive set of variations on ‘Quand je quittai la Normandie’ from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable.

Whilst Henselt as a composer had nothing to say after the age of thirty, this was not the case of his almost exact contemporary Charles-Valentin Morhange (who adopted the surname of ‘Alkan’). All through his life he composed music of a high standard and often of great originality. And yet Alkan is now more remembered for the way he died rather than for his music. Fate can be very cruel! However in the last few years there have been signs of revival of interest and Marc-André Hamelin has been one of his protagonists.

The two Alkan Concertos presented here are both short works, written on a small scale. They are both very pleasant and tuneful. As usual with Alkan the piano parts present extraordinary technical difficulties which Hamelin surmounts with apparent ease. This was the first recording of the first concerto.

This CD deserved to be a success as it presents four very interesting and enjoyable almost unknown works. Hamelin’s playing is superb and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins plays well. The recording is clear and sounds good in a natural acoustic. As with most of this series, it is attractively presented and it has very interesting notes by Jeremy Nicholas.

Arthur Baker

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