Adolf von Henselt’s Piano Concerto
Notes by TŌN keyboard player Ji Hea Hwang
Stretches and Jumps
Anton Rubinstein, one of the great virtuoso pianists of the 19th century, once heard Henselt play his own Piano Concerto in F Minor and “was amazed at his dexterity at the piano, especially in the way of stretches, wide-spread chords and incredible jumps around the keyboard.” Rubinstein procured the music, worked on it for a few days, then declared it “a waste of time, for they were based on an abnormal formation of the hand” and said that “Henselt, like Paganini, was a freak.” This was due to the fact that Henselt worked so diligently on stretching his hands that despite his short fingers and average sized hands, his left hand could play C-E-G-C-F and his right hand B-E-A-C-E, which means about ten inches from thumb to pinkie, with inner digits stretched about two-to-three inches apart from each other in positions that are quite awkward to maintain.
Years of Compulsive Practice
His diligence did not stop at hand extensions. By the age of 18, he got into the habit of practicing for ten hours a day. He was always with a dummy keyboard on his knees, in company or by himself, on which he uninterruptedly drummed his fingers, even during the intermissions of his concerts or on trains. Writer Wilhelm von Lenz, a friend and student of many mid-century Romantic composers, including Liszt and Chopin (both Henselt’s contemporaries), in his book The Great Piano Virtuosos of Our Time From Personal Acquaintance names Henselt as “the only artist among the great pianists who is Liszt’s equal . . . [having] the same command over the resources, in fullness of tone and the same finish of execution,” and recounts how Henselt played Bach fugues every day on a piano with muffled strings to spare his ears and nerves while simultaneously reading the Bible or talking with people without being disturbed in his playing. Many years of compulsive practice gave him great finger independence and technique that enabled him to play amazingly clear counterpoint lines in Bach and accomplish feats such as adding octaves to the right hand when playing Chopin’s Black Key Etude. He also possessed a lovely tone and legato quality in his playing, to which Liszt exclaimed, “I could have had velvet paws like that if I had wanted to!”
It is only natural that Henselt’s own Piano Concerto reflects his characteristics as a pianist. The piece demands from the performer a hand stretch that can play chords spanning tenths with ease, lyrical cantabile playing, and incredible technical command to execute thunderous octave passages, flashy arpeggios, and fast octave jumps—something akin to a figure skater having to perform endless triple and quadruple jumps and land them perfectly and gracefully every time. One thing to note is that all the difficulties in the solo part and the incredible feats accomplished by the pianist are often not readily apparent without the score. With the constant technical demands, the concerto requires athleticism, endurance, and stamina from the pianist. There are only three recordings of this concerto available as of now, so it is an extremely rare treat to be able to hear this concerto live today.