Volume 07 Alkan and Henselt Piano Concertos Marc-André Hamelin, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins View larger

Volume 07 Alkan and Henselt Piano Concertos Marc-André Hamelin, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins



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The coupling of works by Alkan and Henselt is not as arbitrary as might appear. Born six months apart, both enjoyed long lives and died within eighteen months of each other; both have been entirely overshadowed by their more illustrious contemporaries Liszt and Chopin (to the extent that they have been assigned to the footnotes of musical history), though both had an individual approach to the piano with a style as clearly defined and as idiosyncratic as their two peers; both were recluses, rarely playing their works in public; both were transcendent technicians, exploring the potential of their instrument in ways which were to influence other pianists and composers of piano music; both were eccentrics in their personal habits and lifestyles; both have been almost universally ignored by the majority of concert pianists; and neither of their names is known to the general music-loving public. (Although there has been a marked revival of interest in Alkan’s work over the past three decades, there is still only grudging acknowledgement of his importance from the musical ‘establishment’.)


The four works presented here were all written at around the same time – that is to say the twelve or so years between 1832 and 1844. Only one of them has ever featured in the regular repertoire of any pianist; Alkan’s Concerto No 1 probably has not been realized in this its original form since its initial performances; Henselt’s Meyerbeer variations have certainly not been performed by anyone this century (its publishers Breitkopf and Härtel confirmed this when checking their archives); Alkan’s Concerto No 2 has been recorded before, notably by Michael Ponti, who was also responsible for one of only two previous recordings of the Henselt concerto.

Of the myriad contributions to the genre written during the first part of the nineteenth century, Henselt’s Piano Concerto in F minor, Op 16, is the one whose neglect is the hardest to explain. It has the composer’s individual stamp on every bar, it is original in its writing (if not its structure), its orchestration is more than adequate and at times masterly, its themes are varied and memorable, the musical and technical challenges for the soloist are equalled only by their effect on the listener, and the whole work has the feel of white-hot inspiration. Henselt never reached the same height again. Is it a good piece of music? Yes. The piece may not offer revolutionary concepts (indeed, much of it is firmly rooted in the past), but that does not alter its intrinsic merit. It should be part of the core repertoire.

Where did it come from? What was the genesis of this most demanding of Romantic concertos? Its composer was born on 9 May 1814 at Schwabach, a small town in Bavaria, close to Nuremberg. His father Philipp Eduard Henselt is described variously as a cotton manufacturer or cotton weaver, whose marriage to Caroline Geigenmüller produced six children. When Adolf was three the family moved to Munich. It was not a musical family but he had his first piano lessons at the age of five, gave his first public recital when he was fifteen and, in 1831, under the auspices of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, was granted a stipend to study piano in Weimar with Hummel and composition in Vienna with the master theorist and pedagogue Simon Sechter.

The early part of his career progressed conventionally enough, though his elopement with (and eventual marriage to) the wife of one of Goethe’s friends must have raised a few eyebrows at the time. Aristocratic in looks and bearing, he would in later years resemble the Emperor Franz Josef. His early success touring Germany and Russia was underlined by the reception of his sets of studies (Opp 2 & 5) published in 1837 and 1838. The Douze études caractéristiques de concert (Op 2) were dedicated to his royal patron and include the best (only?) known work of Henselt today – ‘Si oiseau j’étais, à toi je volerais’ (‘Were I a bird, I’d fly to you’), a tricky feather-light study in sixths once given the distinction of a recording by Rachmaninov. These were followed by the Douze études de salon (dedicated to HRH Marie the Queen of Saxony) which, with the previous set of twelve, alternate through all the major and minor keys.

These studies attracted a lot of attention for the young virtuoso, many of them presenting technical problems different from those in Chopin’s two sets (published a few years previously) but still maintaining the new concept of exercises wrapped in poetry. They were Henselt’s ‘calling card’ and to the present day remain beyond the capabilities of many pianists. Even the legendary Anton Rubinstein had to admit defeat; after working on the études and F minor Concerto for a few days, he realized ‘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.’ Many passages in the études presage the harmonic progressions and technical difficulties of the F minor Concerto. There is a liberal use of chords of the tenth (sometimes twelfth) and arpeggios with a larger stretch than an octave. It wasn’t that Henselt had large hands – au contraire, he is known to have had small hands with short fleshy fingers. But by means of diligent, self-consuming practice he managed to achieve an amazing degree of elasticity with an extension that could reach C–E–G–C–F in his left hand and B–E–A–C–E in the right (try it!).

All this augured well for an important career as a pianist and composer. Neither came about. Towards the end of his life Henselt himself recognized (in a letter to the critic La Mara) that he had not fulfilled his early promise:

I am persuaded that because I performed so little of what I promised in my youth, it would be impossible to speak about me without censure … you think perhaps that I undervalue myself; by no means, but I live in no illusion about myself. I know, for instance, quite well, that some of my compositions are among the best which have been written for the instrument – that I have written better studies than many a so-called composer. Still, this is far too little: that is to say, the works that deserve mention are far too few in number; I have but given a proof that I might have been a composer: the circumstances of my life were, however, not favourable to it. Above all, the passion for virtuosity should have never taken possession of me.

As a composer, he simply had nothing else to say after the age of thirty, recognized the fact and lived with it. From the completion of the F minor Concerto (1844) to his death, there is no advance in style or content in the few remaining works. This lends (albeit by default) a pleasing one-ness to his entire output, a ‘Henseltian’ style as recognizable as Chopin’s, or Liszt’s or, more pertinently, Alkan’s.

Given the paucity of his creativity, the extent of his influence on piano playing is remarkable for two reasons. First by way of the prodigious technical invention of the études (and, for that matter, the Concerto). As Richard Davis put it: ‘The effect of [Henselt’s] extensions – [his] original, if at times impractical contribution to piano technique – resulted in fuller tone in the bass and greatly increased coverage in the upper registers of the keyboard with economy of notes and minimal movement of the hand and arm, and is to be seen in much of the later music of Balakirev, as well as that of Lyapunov, Scriabin and Rachmaninov (who must have greatly benefited from his study of Henselt), and we may believe that the great reserves of resources engendered as a result of this extra ability really did give control to all these composers as pianists.’

The second influence Henselt had on piano playing was a result of his position in the cultural life of Russia. His triumph as a visiting concert pianist in St Petersburg in 1838 led immediately to him being named Court Pianist. From then until his death Henselt spent all but the summer months each year in the Russian city where he enjoyed a princely lifestyle and was on intimate terms with three successive tsars. His arrival coincided with the upsurge of interest in a Nationalist school of music. In 1863 he was made Inspector General of all the royally-endowed musical institutions in Russia. As Bettina Walker engagingly observes in My Musical Experiences (1880):

When one takes into account that in St Petersburg alone there are five such Imperial endowments, three in Moscow, and one or more in most of the larger cities throughout this vast empire, and that, furthermore, some of these institutes count their students by the hundred (that, for instance, of Nicholas in St Petersburg, numbers six hundred pupils), we shall then be in a position to realize what an enormous influence over pianoforte playing throughout all Russia was thus placed in Henselt’s hands. It is not, indeed, too much to say that never before has a single musician had so wide a sphere of musical activity opened to him; and though that influence extended over one single department in music’s vast domain – that of pianoforte playing – still, if we consider that it was these institutes which trained all the governesses and female teachers throughout Russia, that all the musical instruction was (and still is as I write) given by teachers who had either been actually pupils of Henselt, or else been thoroughly drilled by his lady-professors, it is not too much to assume that for more than a quarter of a century his influence has been felt in more or less every home in Russia where there was a pianoforte.

And this does not take into account the influence of Henselt’s own private pupils. Among them were Rachmaninov’s grandfather and Nicolai Zverev. Zverev taught Rachmaninov himself, Lhevinne, Siloti and Scriabin. Here we have the foundations of the present Russian school of piano-playing with its emphasis on singing melody and freedom of hand movement. Henselt’s contribution to the piano was at least as significant as that of Liszt and Leschetizky.

What was he like as a pianist? All writers who left detailed accounts of Henselt (and there were many) agree on one thing: his cantabile playing was unequalled. (Even Liszt was envious: ‘I could have had velvet paws like that if I had wanted to’, he told his pupils.) They also agree that no one in the history of piano playing was such a compulsive practiser, with the exception, perhaps, of Leopold Godowsky (whose own music must have been influenced by Henselt’s writing; certainly both share a common fault of frequent over-elaboration at the expense of the musical content). During a recital, even between items, Henselt would leap to his muffled practise piano in the wings and keep his fingers working, almost like a child’s comforter. Von Lenz described him at home practising on a piano muffled by feather quills, playing Bach fugues while simultaneously reading the Bible: ‘After he has played Bach and the Bible quite through, he begins over again.’

Of all the great pianists (and there’s no doubt that he was one of the great players of the last century) he suffered more than any from stage fright. The thought of playing in public made him physically ill and in the last thirty-three years of his life it’s reckoned that he gave no more than three public recitals. Yet many report that when in the company of friends or, even better, when alone, he was unsurpassed, some say not even by Liszt. The oft-quoted story of the pianist Alexander Dreyschock overhearing Henselt playing is worth repeating. The American pianist William Mason recalls Dreyschock telling how, calling on Henselt in St Petersburg one morning and going up the staircase to his room, ‘he heard the most lovely tones of the piano-forte imaginable. He was so fascinated that he sat down at the top of the landing and listened for a long time. Henselt was repeating the same composition and his playing was specially characterized by a warm, emotional touch and a delicious legato, causing the tones to melt, as it were, one into the other, and this, too, without any confusion or lack of clearness.’ Eventually Dreyschock interrupted and announced himself, asking what it was that Henselt had been playing. It was one of his own pieces he was composing and Dreyschock begged him to play it to him again: ‘Alas! His performance was stiff, inaccurate, even clumsy, and all of the exquisite poetry and unconsciousness of his style completely disappeared. It was quite impossible to describe the difference; and this was simply the result of diffidence and nervousness which, as it appeared, were entirely out of the player’s power to control.’

Henselt played his F minor Concerto in public only rarely. Who could blame him, with a temperament that left him below his best under pressure (a further similarity with Godowsky)? Liszt, it is said, sight-read the whole work from the manuscript. Other pianists who included it in their repertoire were Liszt’s pupils Hans von Bülow, Arthur Friedheim and Emil Sauer, the latter playing it at his New York debut in 1899. Busoni played it, and so did his pupil Egon Petri (who said it was one of the hardest pieces he had ever played). Louis Moreau Gottschalk is said to have performed it, and also Vladimir de Pachmann, who knew Henselt and edited his works. So it comes as something of a surprise after this list of barnstormers to learn that it was Clara Schumann who gave its first performance. This was in 1844 (though the work was not published until two years later).

The first two bars of the F minor Concerto contain not only the three ascending notes which provide a motif for each of the three first-movement subjects but, in its three descending bass notes, a figure which when transposed to the key of C sharp minor reveals one of music’s most famous openings. Raymond Lewenthal (who provided the first recording of the work) was not the first to wonder whether it is a coincidence or a conscious salute to Henselt that Rachmaninov’s Op 2 No 3 Prelude commences with that same doom-laden phrase. There is no doubt that Rachmaninov knew Henselt’s work intimately and played the concerto when a young man.

The formidable piano entry gives notice of the scale of the writing to come. The soloist is given few breathers throughout, though in the midst of the hectic first movement come sixteen bars of muted strings in a Religioso variation on the three-note subject (a marvellous touch this) before the soloist launches into a barrage of ferocious arpeggios embroidering the Religioso theme. The movement continues with constant words of encouragement from Henselt (‘agitato’, ‘crescendo assai’, ‘sempre fortissimo’) before a tutti concludes the movement in a triumphant blaze of F major. If the relentless, constant rhythmic pulse of this Allegro patetico is rooted in the late Classicism of Weber and Mendelssohn, the second movement (Larghetto) looks to the future with echoes of Chopin. A similar three-note motif hints at the Rachmaninov Prelude again and it features piano scoring on four staves (a device, incidentally, used very little by any other composer until the C sharp minor Prelude, make of it what you will). This is firmly in the Romantic mould, ‘tempo rubato’ et al, and, for its melodious charm, its variety of emotion and altogether original conception, ranks among the most felicitous slow movements of the genre.

How does Henselt top this? With an Allegro agitato in 6/8, commencing with an onslaught of octaves prefacing a catchy and deceptively simple rondo. The left-hand triplets alone would knock the stuffing out of the average conservatory professor and the writing throughout is extraordinarily energetic, requiring enormous stamina and athleticism. No wonder Henselt was a fitness freak – one of music’s earliest recorded joggers who exercised regularly with the royal family.

The finale has been likened by Raymond Lewenthal to ‘a prophecy of the doom of the Tzarist regime as it frantically, furiously, frivolously dances its way to perdition’. Not such a fanciful picture, for there is a strong Russian flavour to this movement; its second subject could be a waltz by someone like Arensky, and can we not hear Tchaikovsky somewhere just round the corner? Although its spine may be in the well-worked European tradition, its character is distinctly un-French and -German. This last movement also reveals one important reason behind the concerto’s disappearance from the repertoire. The demands of the solo part are immense – though not by any means unpianistic, unplayable, inelegant or unconquerable – but they are the kind of difficulties that an audience cannot readily appreciate without a score (another trait shared with Godowsky’s music). The soloist has to work very hard indeed for effects that are not always apparent.

It’s good to welcome the concerto back to the catalogue in this distinguished performance by a soloist who is an authentic advocate of this music.

The Variations de concert, Op 11, on ‘Quand je quittai la Normandie’ from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable are dedicated to ‘Her Majesty L’Impératrice de toutes les Russies’. Henselt produced this diverting confection in 1840 after his move to Russia, simultaneously shifting the subject of his dedications from a Bavarian to a Russian monarch. He was not the first to use Meyerbeer’s popular success for the basis of variations: Chopin’s Grand Duo in E for cello and piano was written in 1832, a year after the opera’s Paris premiere; Liszt in his Reminiscences, and Sigismund Thalberg in his Fantasy, used themes from the opera too. Henselt’s are out of the school of Chopin’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’ variations of some thirteen years earlier. Though there is less evidence of his études than in the concerto, it’s a work which partly justifies Schumann’s assessment of Henselt as ‘the Northern Chopin’. That said, it could never have been written by Chopin (nor indeed Mendelssohn; quite apart from stylistic comparisons it falls some way below their inspirational best). Its brilliant and demanding writing are more Lisztian than anything. After an opening deluge of octaves, note-spinning and a Larghetto introduction, Meyerbeer’s perky theme is followed by seven variations (with a fearsome cadenza before the last), each linked by an orchestral breathing space.

If Henselt had nothing more to say after the age of thirty, the same could not be said of Charles-Valentin Morhange (the name with which Alkan was first registered: Alkan was his father’s first name and he adopted this as his surname early on). The ideas came pouring forth in bewildering variety, his earliest in the Kalkbrenner-Mendelssohn-Weber mould but taking flight during his life into strange, prophetic visions.

Alkan is one of the most puzzling cases of ‘composer neglect’. He wrote at a level consistent with the greatest contemporary writers for the piano – Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms –, introduced new forms, and produced music every bit as inventive as that of his peers, and yet he was all but forgotten until three decades ago. Since then the advocacy of Ronald Smith and Raymond Lewenthal (names to which can now be added Laurent Martin, Bernard Ringeissen and Marc-André Hamelin) has persuaded many people that Alkan, like Chopin and Liszt, was a genius.

One can see why he dropped out of sight: his music was advanced for its day. Like Henselt, he did little to promote it in the way that Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz and the other moderns did. The piano-writing is for the most part ferociously hard to play; he had few contemporaries to champion it. Musical tastes change; the world had tasted Debussy, Bartók and Schoenberg before anyone bothered to investigate this nineteenth-century dinosaur. Since Alkan’s death, the likes of d’Albert, Bauer, Ganz, Busoni and Arrau have included odd bits of his music in their repertoire at some point, but it was not until the arrival on the scene of Egon Petri in the first decades of this century that his major works (in particular the Symphony and Concerto for solo piano) were heard at all.

And what a strange, bitter man he was, a misanthrope who had two homes in Paris (one of them in the Square d’Orléans where he was a neighbour of Chopin and George Sand) so that he could avoid visitors, a great pianist (Liszt declared that Alkan had the greatest technique he had ever known) but who, like Henselt, seldom played in public. He had an illegitimate son with the wondrous name of Elie Miriam Delaborde who shared his dwelling with two apes and 121 cockatoos. Having been passed over for a major position at the Conservatoire, ignored and humiliated (as he saw it) he withdrew from the public, still yearning for official recognition. One anecdote illustrates his character. Towards the end of his life a delegation of officials finally called upon him one afternoon, just after he had finished lunch, to invest him with some award or other. He met them at the door saying, ‘Messieurs, à cette heure, moi, je digère’ (‘Gentlemen, at this hour I digest’). The delegation departed and that was the end of Alkan’s chances for a decoration. Today it’s the nature of his ultimate demise that evokes a reaction at the mention of his name, rather than any of his music, for he suffered one of musical history’s most unusual deaths. He was crushed by a bookcase (although the legend of him having reached up for the Talmud – which miraculously remained clutched in his hand – may be a romanticized version of the event).

With more of Alkan’s music available now than ever before, the list of extraordinary works, of revelatory piano compositions, grows yearly. No sneering musicologist can deny the epic grandeur (in writing and conception) of the Twelve Études in all the minor keys, Op 39, of which Nos 4, 5, 6 and 7 comprise the Symphony for solo piano, and Nos 8, 9 and 10 form the Concerto for solo piano (the recording of which by Mr Hamelin being, in this writer’s opinion, one of the single most astonishing exhibitions of virtuoso pianism ever captured on disc). The études are among the masterpieces of the piano’s literature and inspired Hans von Bülow’s famous description of Alkan as ‘the Berlioz of the piano’. Then there’s the Grande Sonate, Op 33, subtitled ‘Les quatre âges’, the futuristic La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer and Le Tambour bat aux champs, the Trois grandes Études, Op 76, the Grand duo concertant, Op 21, the impromptu on Luther’s Un fort rempart est notre Dieu, Op 69 … the contents of his secret treasure chest are slowly emerging to intrigue and delight.

So what of the present two discoveries? First the title, ‘Concerto da camera’, first used for Baroque music. Just as there were two types of sonata (‘sonata da chiesa’, a church sonata with abstract movements, and ‘sonata da camera’, a chamber sonata with dance-style movements), so there were two types of concerto. Here, a more apposite description would be ‘Concertino’, for the two by Alkan contain no dance music and both take the form of a short concerto.

Scored for piano and strings, the Concerto da camera in C sharp minor, Op 10 No 2, was composed in 1833 (when Alkan was only twenty) during a visit to England. It remained a lifelong favourite. It is dedicated to the minor composer and pianist Henry Field, Bath-born and -bred (1797–1848), who gave the first performance there on 11 April 1834 (the Bath and Cheltenham Gazette reviewed it as ‘especially delightful for the novelty of its style and technique’). Field must have been no mean player to cope with some of the novel and challenging keyboard acrobatics, especially the final section of its simple A–B–A structure which incorporates lightning-fast arpeggios and jumps that put it way beyond the gentleman amateur. This is not Alkan at full stretch (as in the Twelve Études) but, despite the obvious limitations and influences in the work, clearly he already knows that he has a voice of his own.

The Concerto da camera in A minor, Op 10 No 1, premiered by Alkan in Paris in 1832, has never been recorded before, either as a piano solo, or (as here) in its original form. It is doubtful whether it’s been played more than a handful of times since its composition; the existence of a full set of parts was only discovered in the 1980s. This is a more ambitious ‘concertino’ than its successor, again in one movement though in three distinct sections. It is scored for strings, double woodwind (with two extra bassoons), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and timpani. Throughout, one is reminded of other composers but never convinced. Here is a Mendelssohnian theme, there a Chopinesque modulation, here some awkward Weber-like passagework. But no, it is a different, independent thinker throughout, too masculine for Chopin, too sharp-cornered for Mendelssohn. Any pianist tackling this must have nimble fingers and (in all three sections) good octaves and sparkling repeated notes. The work is dedicated to Alkan’s teacher Joseph Zimmerman (1785–1853), who himself was a pupil of Cherubini.

The two Alkan concertos, for all their attractions, are still minor works. So are the Henselt variations. The F minor Concerto is a major piano composition. But whatever their various emotional, musical and structural merits and limitations, in the end one simply has to ask: ‘Are they effective and well-wrought? Do they stand up to repeated hearing? Are they worth reviving?’ The answer to all three questions surely is ‘yes’, and one must add: ‘But why has it taken until now before most of us have had a chance to hear them?’


'The phenomenal playing and superb musicianship of Marc-André Hamelin whose account of the staggeringly difficult Henselt Concerto is quite breathtaking. A thoroughly enjoyable disc well worth exploring' (Gramophone)

'An admirable disc for all lovers of bravura virtuoso piano writing' (CDReview)

'Recommended without reservation' (American Record Guide)

'You could hardly ask for a more brilliant display of fireworks' (Classic CD)

'Hamelin's performance can only be described as sensational' (Piano International)

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