HENSELT Piano Works
All-Henselt discs are few and far between (the last in these pages was Piers Lane’s less than successful accounts of the Opp 2 and 5 Studies – Hyperion, 2/05). We should hear more of him. Even sniffy Schumann admired his music – ‘the Chopin of the North’ – and he can rightly be regarded as the father of the Russian school of piano playing (he taught Rachmaninov’s father and Zverev, Rachmaninov’s teacher). But his inconsistency means you have to cherry pick. No pianist could disguise the paucity of invention and originality in some of the waltzes and impromptus presented here, let alone the seemingly endless Fantaisie sur un air bohémien-russe, all redolent of dingy, cobwebbed ballrooms, antimacassars and pianos with covered legs.
The best of Henselt, though, is unmissable in the right hands. Daniel Grimwood is a longtime champion of the composer and has had most of this music in his fingers for some time – and it shows. In Henselt’s most famous and oft-recorded work, ‘Si oiseau j’étais’ (Étude No 6 from the Op 2 set), he is superbly fleet and fluent. This brief study, which Grimwood himself describes as ‘a sadistic exercise in double notes’, is dispatched only three seconds slower than Rachmaninov’s miraculous 1923 recording. Then there is the Ballade, Op 31, the longest work here (13'53"), inferior to Chopin in its melodic appeal but a powerful tone poem nevertheless, with astonishing outbursts of flailing despair. In this and the opening track, the Variations on a theme from L’elisir d’amore (1837, premiered by Clara Schumann), Grimwood easily outshines the splashy Rüdiger Steinfatt (Koch Schwann, 1987). Among many other highlights are the second of the two Op 6 Nocturnes, ‘La fontaine’, and the once popular Wiegenlied, which are given lovingly phrased, thoughtful performances.
So there is plenty to enjoy on this well-recorded, handsomely presented disc, one that begs a second volume of Grimwood in the complete études and, fingers crossed, a third featuring the lonely pinnacle that is Henselt’s Piano Concerto.