Adolf von Henselt (1814-1889)
Piano Concerto in F minor, Op.16 (1845)
Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf (1830-1913)

Piano Concerto in F Sharp minor, Op.10 (1873)
Paul Wee (piano), Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Michael Collins
rec. 2022, Örebro Konserthus, Sweden
BIS BIS-2715 SACD [59]

Harold C. Schonberg’s superb book The Great Pianists is a marvellously readable account of the lives of every pianist entitled to that distinction. He recounts, often with a wryly amused turn of phrase, short biographies concentrating on the pianists’ techniques. If that is your interest, it is one of those books whose episodes become engraved in your memory. It only appears to be available second-hand. Some versions are extended to bring it up to date. My copy ends with Murray Perahia.

There is a lengthy, entertaining section on Adolf von Henselt. Some of that appears in the booklet. Clearly, he was a phenomenon of pianistic virtuosity, but not because of natural physical gifts such as Rachmaninov’s large hands. His temperament allowed compulsive practice for ten hours a day, day after day, month after month. His ordinary hands developed an elasticity, giving him extraordinary reach. Practicing may have allowed him an escape from extreme shyness which prevented concertizing, except to small audiences of friends. The thought of having to appear in a concert hall made him physically ill. (He was an atrocious teacher. He appeared to his hapless pupils dressed in a white suit, wearing a red fez and clutching a fly swat. As he walked around the room he would shout: “Wrong. Play it again.”, whilst swatting flies. If he had no interest in the pupil, he would ignore them and play with his dogs.)

Henselt, who studied under Hummel, thought of his teacher as an old fogey. Yet his few compositions are rather conservative. I hear nothing revolutionary in the concerto recorded here. Old-fashioned orchestration accompanies an almost continuous piano part. Rippling arpeggios interrupt forceful bravura writing. No doubt Henselt had a graceful gift for melody, well displayed in the slow movement.

I have read that if you can play the piano and have Henselt’s score at hand, you will be as flabbergasted as Liszt was by its demands. Anton Rubinstein tried but failed to play both it and Henselt’s Etudes, and complained that Henselt’s hands were abnormal. Liszt, however, was seen playing the concerto at sight. It was noted at the time that at Henselt’s very rare  public performences only the pianists in the audience would have been aware of the physical miracles he was achieving.

This throws some light on the advances of piano technique in the 20th century. I have two other recordings of the work, by Michael Ponti (Vox, late 1960s) and Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion, 1993). To my ears, all three soloists play with great panache. The Vox recording, with the Philharmonia Hungarica under Othmar Mága, is better recorded and orchestrally less scrappy than some others in that pioneering series of concerto recordings. Still, it cannot compete with the Hyperion issue as far as the orchestra and sound are concerned, and even less so with the Super Audio CD sound of this disc.

Ponti, a true virtuoso, was sadly never recorded by a major company. In both these concertos, he gave a committed performance of considerable power, hampered only by the recording and orchestral quality. It was particularly bad in Bronsart’s work: the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra of Recklinghausen seem to have been sight-reading the piece for the first time. Marc-André Hamelin obviously bestrides Henselt’s work in his customary effortless hyper-virtuosic style, accompanied by Martin Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (review), but the thirty-years-old sound image is rather dull.

I listened to the BIS disc on a Marantz 30n SACD player in stereo. It is up to the label’s usual very high production standards. The accompanying booklet includes highly enthusiastic notes by the pianist, Paul Wee. A full-time barrister (specialising in Commercial Law and Investor-State arbitration, international arbitration, energy and natural resources), he finds the time to collaborate with BIS on acclaimed recordings of the pianistic Everests of the literature.

The piano here is balanced to the fore of the orchestra, but not disturbingly so. One can argue that in a concerto such as this, composed as a vehicle for virtuoso display, slight prominence is justified, especially when the orchestration is not too individualistic or even quite ordinary. The recording therefore has a greater effect than Hamelin’s virtuoso playing.

The first movement begins with three orchestral chords. Rachmaninov took its underlying bass line to open his famous C sharp minor Prelude Op.3 No.2. This is the first of several references Paul Wee made to Henselt’s influence on Rachmaninov, and indeed on an entire generation of Russian pianists; he was appointed Inspector General of all Russia’s imperially endowed musical institutes. The movement continues conventionally, and becomes sumptuous when the busy piano quietens for sixteen bars as the hushed strings introduce a religioso chorale development. It is interrupted by a cataclysmic barrage of sempre fortissimo double arpeggios on the piano, scored over three staves to arresting effect. Wee asserts that Rachmaninov’s C Minor Concerto derives several passages from Henselt’s piece he played as a young man.

I will borrow Wee’s phrasing, with deep thanks: it comes from the pen of a connoisseur. He praises the slow movement even more: “a starlit Larghetto […] one of the great slow movements of the genre […] recedes beneath a twinkling night sky”.This doubtless attractive movement is melodically very pleasant, but the melodies are not all that individual, and do not stick in my mind for long. Notably, Henselt’s playing was famous for its clarity and ability to “play in a warm, emotional touch and a delicious legato, causing the tones to melt, as it were, one into the other”, as noted by Alexander Dreyschock, another pianist who heard Henselt play. The composer surely would have milked this slow movement when he performed it.

The last movement is really exhilarating, and its coda is as full of pianistic fireworks as anyone could want.

Ever since I heard Ponti play the Bronsart concerto, I wanted another recording with a better orchestra and a much better sound. I waited some 45 years for Hyperion to record it as No.77 in the Romantic Piano Concerto series (review). Now, another deserving recording has arrived after only four years.

Bronsart’s concerto is not in the same class of pianistic difficulty. Paul Wee says: “It is rousing, intimate and electrifying in turns; and the richness of its orchestration is matched by an uncommonly brilliant piano part that is a model of practical virtuosity, in that its writing enables the pianist to achieve maximum brilliance and impact for (generally) minimum effort and difficulty.”

Bronsart travelled to Weimar in 1853, where he fell under Liszt’s tutelage. Liszt had published his Transcendental Studies – Douze Grande Etudes – in 1837. He revised them in 1852, reducing the phenomenal technical difficulty but retaining the effect on the listener. Given Liszt’s influence, one can imagine that Bronsart took this idea onboard when he wrote his concerto some 20 years later. Unlike Liszt and Henselt, Bronsart was not a super-virtuoso. After touring with some success, he accepted two conductor posts in Leipzig and Berlin before moving into arts administration, eventually as manager of the Court Theatre of Weimar.

The concerto has more immediate melodic appeal than Henselt’s, especially in the slow movement of exquisite beauty. Paul Wee outdoes himself in his descriptions, but I agree wholeheartedly: “cello and strings […] deeply affecting dialogue with the piano […] horn chorale of heart-melting tenderness […] breathtaking restatement of both themes […] guasi Schubertian magical modulation encircled by gossamer piano accompaniment.” Yes, it is that good!

The outer movements are notable for their fire and vigour. The first, almost twice the length of the other two combined, has strong, well contrasted themes, and easily maintains interest. In the last, a colourful tarantella precedes a romp between piano and orchestra, occasionally resembling the scherzo of Litolff’s Concerto Symphonique No.4. This stimulating mix ends in a short coda where the piano acrobatics usher in the orchestra’s vigorous restatement of the tarantella theme.

Emmanuel Despax performed the work for Hyperion. I find little to differentiate the two in terms of recording quality, and both conductors bring full commitment. But I think that Paul Wee plays with greater panache and, dare I say, communicates more enjoyment in the performance. You would not go wrong with the Hyperion disc, but Wee clearly loves this sort of repertoire – just look at his earlier BIS recordings – and he has technique to spare.

It is only fair to mention Ponti’s recording, since I have lived with, loved and hated it in turn for fifty years. It cannot compete in recorded sound, and the second-rate orchestra is woefully under-rehearsed. Even so, Ponti is excellent. He plays with more virtuosic abandon than Despax.

The disc comes in a folded cardboard sleeve with pockets for the disc and the booklet. The booklet, in English, German and French, contains full notes about the music and biographical data of the performers.

Fervently recommended.

Jim Westhead

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