WILLIAM STERNDALE BENNETT: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 4; Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 9 (The Romantic Piano Concerto, Volume 71) ‒ BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Howard Shelley, piano and conductor ‒ Hyperion CDA68178 (3/2/18) [Distr. by PIAS] 79:31 ****:
The Romantic piano concerto revival, which began even before Hyperion’s groundbreaking series, has reintroduced music lovers to many of the lions of the piano from the first half of the nineteenth century. The following may be a bit reductionist, but these composers can be divided into virtuoso pianist-composers and composer-pianists who applied themselves to genres beyond solo and concerted piano works. The music of many in the first group is pretty negligible in quality. These include Henri Herz and Friedrich Kalkbrenner, and I reluctantly add Henry Litolff, whose scherzo from Concerto Symphonique No. 4 remains one the greatest hits of this era. Litolff is showcased, by the way, in Volumes 14 and 26 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series.
The other group includes composers who wrote in a number of genres, and their music is generating renewed interest as their work is reappraised. This group includes the likes of Ferdinand Ries, Ignaz Moscheles, Carl Czerny, and William Sterndale Bennett’s teacher, Cipriani Potter, all of whose concerti have been featured in the Hyperion Romantic Concerto series. For Potter’s concerti, see the review here. To this list, Bennett (1816–1875) himself can certainly be added. As with his teacher, Bennett started his composing career like the proverbial house a-fire but then, in 1837, turned his attention to teaching, first at the Royal Academy of Music and later Cambridge University. Unlike Cipriani Potter (who virtually abandoned composing after the 1830s), Bennett kept his hand in with an occasional entry to his catalog and then returned to composing in earnest in the 1850s, producing among other works a symphony (1863), which is pretty good, for a musical throwback. It can be sampled, along with other orchestral works, on a Lyrita recording (SRCD.2016).
Bennett wrote five piano concerti. The Fourth (1836) is featured in Volume 43 of the Hyperion series (CDA67595), Howard Shelley performing on that CD as well. Notably, the three concerti on the current CD were all written by Bennett between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, while he was still a student at the Royal Academy. They show an incremental increase in maturity and invention, the last being worth a revival in the concert hall, I’d say. As Jeremy Dibble remarks in his notes to this recording, Bennett’s supposed model was Mozart (whose concerti Bennett’s teacher Potter was largely responsible for introducing in England). But more pronounced, at least in the First Concerto, is the influence of members of the “London Piano School,” including Moscheles, Johann Cramer, and Potter himself. Potter’s influence is even more evident in the next two concerti. The First Concerto is a modestly attractive work, with a well-constructed sonata-allegro first movement and a pretty, if rather vapid, slow movement, on which Bennet would improve in his next two concerti. The titular finale, though, is a letdown, if not a cop-out. It is, strangely enough, a scherzo with a rumbustious minor-key A section followed by a simpering trio that’s pretty much weak tea after the romp of the first section. Jeremy Dibble speculates that Bennett was contemplating a four-movement design but was encouraged to drop the finale, which may have ended up as Bennett’s Op. 2, a Capriccio for solo piano. Hence the unusual, and not very successful, conclusion to the concerto.
Bennett makes partial amends in the affable Second Concerto. It starts with a very much extended ritornello and proceeds to a more compelling sonata movement, with both sturdier themes and development. (The movement ends, though, with an opera buffa growl from the bass trombone, which mentor Potter used more tastefully in his concerti.) The Adagio represents even more of an improvement on the First: a fantasia with a theme that unfolds like a gentle processional before morphing into a dramatic contrapuntal treatment of the same. This is followed by an attractive section in which the piano weaves a filigree of sound above the orchestra before we return to the soothing tread of the opening. The last movement, marked Vivace giocoso, has a Mendelssohnian dash to it.
For all its increase in sophistication, the Second Concerto is a frothy work. Bennett obviously wanted to show a different side of his nature in the Third Concerto. Here, the influence of Mendelssohn is apparent, especially in the finale marked Allegro agitato. In this movement, Bennett may have taken inspiration from Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, which he was known to admire. Bennett’s finale has the same headlong intensity as the first movement of the Mendelssohn, at least at the opening, where the piano thunders away solo. However, Bennett is more expansive, the second theme injecting an air of repose that sets up a big contrast the composer exploits successfully throughout. The second movement, Romanza, represents another leap forward; Schumann especially praised its dreamy beauty in his review of the Leipzig premiere with Bennett at the piano.
I’ve admired Howard Shelley as pianist and conductor in so many composers of the Romantic era and beyond: Clementi, Hummel, Moscheles, Spohr, Hiller, Gounod—even Balakirev and Lyapunov. Here, he’s just as effective in the work of his countryman, helping us trace the progress of a talented composer as he grows in assurance and throws more and more technical challenges at the pianist, which doesn’t faze Shelley in the least, of course. As always, he conducts from the keyboard, and the fine Scottish orchestra that he’s conducted on more than a few occasions is right with him. Add to that Hyperion’s typically well-balanced sonics, and you have an attractive proposition for followers of this series and for Romantaholics in general.