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William STERNDALE BENNETT (1816-1875)
Piano Concertos (ed. David Byers): No. 1 in D minor, Op. 1 (1832) [24’12]; No. 3 in C minor, Op. 9 (1834) [27’15]. Caprice in E, Op. 22 (1838) [13’23]
Malcolm Binns (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite.
No rec. info. DDD
LYRITA RECORDED EDITION SRCD204 [65’48]

 

It is to be hoped this release will reawaken interest in the music of William Sterndale Bennett, for it contains much to delight the senses. Juxtaposing the D minor and C minor concertos is a wise move on Lyrita’s part, for they are in many ways complementary works.

The most immediately noticeable feature of the First Piano Concerto is that it ends with a Scherzo – the composer was persuaded to omit the finale from his intended four-movement plan!. Although still a student at the time of composition, it is clearly written by a fairly mature composer, as can be heard in the depths plumbed by the Andante sostenuto or by the vividly evoked storm-clouds of the first movement. Binns is most successful in the slow movement – he seems to move inside the Mendelssohnian freedom of thought to a remarkable degree, including some scintillating passage-work.

The finale begins with a vehement outburst from the orchestra, fully deserving of the D minor key area – the piano’s riposte is of elfin delicacy. Thus begins a dialogue, sometimes heated, sometimes polite, that runs throughout this fascinating movement.

Comparing the openings of the two concertos is instructive. Whereas the D minor presents more heart-on-sleeve drama, that of the C minor is more understated, sadder perhaps, but nevertheless holding within it hints of the struggle ahead. Throughout, Sterndale Bennett’s compositional hand is surer, even though the first concerto only dates from two years earlier. The piano writing in the outer movements is often more of a virtuoso struggle than filigree. Malcolm Binns rises to the technical challenges with aplomb.

Sterndale Bennett seemed to have a particular affection for pizzicato strings, and it is they that begin the Romanza (Andante espressivo). Binns’ eloquent cantabile is particularly affecting during the course of this lovely movement. The finale (Allegro agitato) forms heavy contrast, with its insistent repetitions.

David Byers, the musicologist who furnished the editions of the piano concertos, also provides the booklet notes. He refers to the Caprice as ‘an important addition to the repertory of short concertante works for piano and orchestra’. Its carefree, sunny demeanour is infectious. The most immediate point of reference is Mendelssohn, although a lyrical melody around 2’30 seems to have more of Sterndale Bennett about it. How lovely it would be to see this on a concert programme some day!

Lyrita’s recording captures the piano sound perfectly, with just the right amount of brightness to the treble and a firm bass. The orchestral sound-picture is believable, and the London Philharmonic project a palpable sense of enjoyment and discovery.

Of course, Binns’ disc of the remaining concertos on SRCD205 forms the necessary complement to this release – ideally they should be enjoyed together.

Colin Clarke

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