The English pianist Daniel Grimwood’s latest disc, Henselt: Piano Works, on Edition Peters’s fledgling record label, is a fine selection of piano pieces by a now-forgotten genius of the instrument. Adolph Henselt (the von came later, gift of a grateful Russian nation) was born in Schwabach, Bavaria, in 1814, the son of an industrialist. He emigrated to Russia in 1838, having made a name for himself as a virtuoso to challenge Liszt and Chopin, at which point he began his long and outstanding career as a teacher. As Grimwood points out in his informative and amusing liner notes, it is rather ironic that neither founder of the great Russian pianistic tradition was in fact Russian – the other being Irishman John Field, inventor of the nocturne. It is unsurprising that one can discern foreshadows of Rachmaninoff’s approach to piano sonority in some of these pieces, for instance the grand Fantasy on a Bohemian-Russian Air: Henselt was the teacher of Nikolai Zverev, who was himself the teacher of “the six-and-a-half foot scowl”.
Listening to this carefully selected group must cause anyone with even scant knowledge of the piano repertoire to wonder at the oddity of Henselt’s fall from favour. The variations on Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore which open the album (Henselt’s Opus 1 dating from 1837) are significantly better than Chopin’s attempts at the genre – witness his feeble variations on La ci darem la mano, a rare instance of the great Pole having composed something utterly devoid of inspiration – if not quite possessed of Liszt’s brilliance. It is a piece I should like to hear on the concert platform, its tenderness and rich inventiveness being particularly winning.
Grimwood intersperses the grand showpieces here with a selection of waltzes, nocturnes and impromptus, which serves well to show Henselt’s capability as a miniaturist. The four impromptus are particularly fine, especially the third in B-flat minor. By far the standout piece, for me, is the Ballade in B-flat major, Op 31. In its grand sweep, variation of mood and texture, virtuosity and harmonic inventiveness I was reminded strongly of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, against which it stands strongly.
Grimwood has performed a service to music lovers for which they ought to thank him. By casting the bright light of his superb musicianship and flawless pianism on these 16 pieces he shows them to their greatest advantage, and in so doing makes a compelling argument for their resurrection.
I hope very much to hear other pianists take up the gauntlet he has thrown down with such vigour.
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