Thursday, 24 January 2013

Adolf von Henselt in Florida

The small and excellent list of pianists who elected to perform the Henselt Concerto makes for intimidating reading for even the most fearless of virtuosi; Clara Schumann (who premiered it), Liszt, von B├╝low, Friedheim, Anna Mehlig, von Sauer (who chose it for his American debut), Klindworth (who performed it in London with Berlioz conducting), Rachmaninoff, Gottschalk, de Pachmann, Petri, Scriabin…. And yet, incredibly, it is one of the least heard of all the great Romantic Concerti – and great it is!
It is clear that Rachmaninoff, who rated Henselt’s Etudes alongside those of Liszt and Chopin for their great beauty, esteemed Op. 16 as it forms the basis for his notoriously famous C# minor prelude: The first three bass notes of the whole concerto are identical to the prelude’s ‘motto’, and the final section echoes the central episode of the Larghetto from the Henselt which is, I believe, the earliest example of four-stave piano writing. The C minor arpeggio section in the first movement is also a clear model for the opening of the Russian’s second Concerto.
It is one of the quirks of music history that the fathers of Russian pianism weren’t in fact Russian – the Irishman John Field, and a generation later the Bavarian Henselt prepared the soil for the most fertile crop of great music and great pianists in the history of my instrument. Perhaps Herr Henselt would be glad to know that after a life characterised by success in the teaching room, perhaps at the expense of success at the writing desk and concert platform (he hardly composed after the age of 30, and quit performing due to extreme stage-fright at 33), his posthumous legacy would be so far reaching; perhaps not…
On preparing the Concerto for performance in Florida next month, I must confess I feel the presence of Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt hanging over my head like a beautiful-sounding Sword of Damocles. The difficulties are of an order rarely encountered, made all the more soul-destroying by the fact that only a pianist would know! However, this is music of such rare beauty and nobility that it has to be worthwhile! In particular, the Larghetto has to be one of the most ravishing things ever composed…