Henschel’s recording of Beethoven’s First
Symphony was once available on a Past Masters LP (PM17) where
it was coupled with Oscar Fried’s recording of the Second,
made in 1924. I admit I’ve not listened to it in years, perhaps
writing it off as a bit commonplace. But I listened again
when this Henschel compilation arrived and can happily report
that the CD is a better transfer than the LP was – more open,
catching upper frequencies better, less veiled. There are
one or two moments of blasting but they pass pretty quickly.
The performance sounded better than I remembered it but in
comparison with, say, Pfitzner’s 1928 reading or the 1937
Weingartner it did still strike me as rather staid, especially
in the outer movements. This was however Henschel’s only recording
as conductor and is a valuable contribution to our understanding
of him as a musician – not just as a singer.
And it was as a singer, and a noted self-accompanist,
that he made an important position for himself. His visits
to the recording studios were few and essentially boiled down
to one acoustic series and one electric. There were a few
other visits when he acted as accompanist to Beatrice Harrison
and to other singers, all acoustic recordings. Symposium’s
selection is not a complete edition and nor does it pretend
to be. Many of Henschel’s vocal acoustics have been reissued
over the years, as indeed have many of his electrics. This
collection gives us the later discs many of which, in any
case, are electric remakes of the acoustic sides.
Even in the later discs, made when he was
in his late seventies and well past his vocal best, the impression
he leaves is one of imperishable conversational style. It’s
not the same thing as Bispham’s narrative declamation. Henschel’s
art has its narrative continuity but it also has a remarkable
improvisatory quality that elevates it well above the usual
run of lieder singing. It’s this ability to inhabit, to enliven
and to convey the narrative essence that makes him so distinguished
a practitioner. It’s certainly not the voice as such, which
had become rather hollow, dry and uneven in his last years.
He’s a little unsteady in Das Wandern for instance.
And in respect of his self-accompaniment there are times when
one feels him struggling with the piano part so that the vocal
production can suffer; certainly there are tiny moments when
he seems to go “off mike” – maybe he involuntarily moved his
head, maybe not.
The booklet notes advance the idea that
because the earlier acoustic G & Ts were themselves quite
“primitively” recorded – we can argue about that – it’s not
possible to tell whether Henschel’s voice had deteriorated
by 1928. Actually it’s perfectly possible and indeed essential
and quite obvious that it has. The artistry however remains
intact. So that the Dvořák – in English translation –
emerges as something almost heroically noble and the J.W.
Franck, again in German-accented English carries with it a
sentiment and affecting simplicity.
The sides with Harrison preserve Henschel’s
own arrangements and the cellist’s ripely romantic instincts
for portamento and tone; they’re not new to CD but are important
documents for admirers of his piano playing and indeed for
admirers of Harrison’s cello playing. Accompanying Emma Eames
in the one American-made recording here we find her immaculate
in her trills, splendid in technique and rather cold. He
also made one side with the baritonal tenor Gervase Elwes,
ironically killed in Boston where Henschel had much earlier
conducted the newly founded orchestra between 1881 and 1884.
And as an envoi there’s an apparently private recording of
Henschel singing and playing his own song, Mein müdes Augen.
The transfers are honest and honourable
– no dampening, fidelity to the letter even at the expense
of surface noise. The biographical notes are useful though
as ever I wish Symposium would make their actual track listings
and details more user-friendly.