Hats off to Hyperion
for offering the only disc on the market
devoted to the solo piano music of Adolf
von Henselt. A virtuoso in his day,
Henselt is now relegated to the designation
of a minor composer of the same era
as Schumann and Chopin.
Henselt, born in Bavaria,
received his musical training in Munich,
Weimar and Vienna. He also performed
and worked extensively in St. Petersburg
under the umbrella of the Tsar's daughter,
soaking up and contributing to the emerging
Russian style of pianism.
The first thing to
make clear is that Henselt is not the
equal of a Chopin or Schumann. Although
his melodies are fetching and sometimes
compelling, they certainly do not carry
the transcendent qualities of the master
composers of the Romantic era. Also,
Henselt's emotional and architectural
breadth is not in the same league. However,
his piano music does compare well with
that of Balakirev and other composers
of the second tier.
The disc at hand well
reveals Henselt's technical skills and
fine artistry. Taking the Salon and
Concert Etudes as a group, we have 24
studies that cover all the major and
minor tones of the chromatic scale with
impressive difficulty, although they
are not sequenced in any particular
tonal order. The element of contrast
is admirable, and ample variety rests
within each study. The Concert Etudes
present a wider and more incisive emotional
stream than the Salon Etudes, but both
sets are highly rewarding.
Below are my comments
about many of the 24 pieces. I excluded
a few to avoid excessive repetition
on my part:
Op. 2 Etudes:
No. 1 in D minor/Allegro
molto agitato - Turbulent music having
rolling/galloping bass arpeggios that
remind me instantly of Chopin's D minor
Prelude from his famous Op. 28 set.
In the middle section, the gallop switches
to the right hand over a bed of powerful
No. 2 in D flat major/Allegro
moderato - A cascading right hand legato
ushers in a sparkling melody that becomes
increasingly rapturous. Very attractive
with sufficient variety.
No. 3 in B minor/Tempo
giusto - Descending broken chords from
the lower voice and a dramatic upper
melody line make for a bitter/sweet
piece that ends aggressively.
No. 4 in B flat major/Allegretto
sostenuto - A poignant 'song without
words'; the first section has the melody
line in the tenor voice, with the middle
section's melody line owned by the soprano
voice. A lovely piece.
No. 5 in C sharp minor/Tempo
giusto - Desperation takes hold in the
C sharp minor which takes shape through
inversion; the first section's two beginning
bars in the right hand are inverted
in the middle section by the left hand.
No. 6 in F sharp major/Allegro
- Built on a shower of cascading notes
from the upper voice, this is one of
Henselt's most delightful piano pieces.
No. 7 in D major/Presto
animoso - The first section is highlighted
by an ascending and playful figure;
the middle section is all drama and
No. 8 in E flat minor/Allegro
agitato ed appassionato - Rapturous
music built on ascending and descending
No. 9 in F major/Allegro
- A chordal study with the primary melody
first presented in legato form and then
altered to staccato.
No 11 in E flat major/Allegretto
sostenuto ed amoroso - Lovely upper
melody over flowing arpeggios.
No. 12 in B flat minor/Moderato
ma con moto, con afflizione - Desperate
ardour and great tension built on a
rocking rhythmic pattern.
Op. 5 Etudes:
No. 1 in C minor "Eroica"/Moderato-Presto
agitato ed appassionato - A singing
melody from the tenor voice over a constant
pair of repeated chords is taken over
by a rapid-fire representation in staccato
No. 2 in G major/Allegro
brillante - A study of right-hand arpeggios
over demonstrative left-hand chords.
No. 4 in E major/Andante
- A beautifully flowing four-part chorale.
Very serene and gives off a wealth of
No. 5 in F sharp minor/Con
moto appassionato e dolorosa - Chordal
study with right hand melody mirrored
inversely by the left hand.
No. 7 in C major/Molto
vivace - Highly virtuosic and delicate
arpeggios from the right hand over a
three-note figure from the bass.
That leaves one work,
the Poème d'amour, which is a
gorgeous 7½ minute tribute to Henselt's
bride whom he married in 1837. Although
a piece of dignity and ceremony, it
also is entirely heart-felt and does
not outstay its welcome.
Piers Lane does an
excellent job of conveying the virtuosity
and serious intent of the composer.
Lane's phrasing is supple, and he provides
the tension and beauty inherent in the
scores. The sonics are splendid, possessing
a fine richness and well-projected detail.
Not a must-have recording,
but the excellent music and performances
mandate a strong recommendation for
those who love Romantic era piano works.
If further interested, please note that
Henselt's Piano Concerto is available
through the Hyperion Romantic Piano
Concerto series, and there is also an
MDG disc devoted to a combination of
his solo piano and chamber music. I
doubt that Henselt's discography will
ever be extensive, but his music would
represent a worthy addition to one's