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William STERNDALE BENNETT (1816-1875)
Piano Concertos: No. 2 in E flat, Op. 4 (1833) [26’16]; No. 5 in F minor (1836, finale ed. Geoffrey Bush) [33’21]. Adagio (ed. Cope) (c.1837) [7’05].
Malcolm Binns (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite.
Rec. Abbey Road Studios, no date given. DDD
LYRITA SRCD205 [66’42]

A double delight. These two Sterndale Bennett concertos (of five he wrote for piano) are gems awaiting discovery; secondly, Malcolm Binns plays with great panache and dedication. The latter was frankly unexpected, given his severely disappointing recital at the Wigmore Hall in September last year.

Sterndale Bennett’s first concerto (1832) was the piece that properly set his career as a composer in motion, the second following soon after. His models were Mozart (his hero) and Mendelssohn. Indeed, the purity of the one conjoined with the early Romantic high spirits of the other seem an intrinsic part of his make up.

All of the works on the present disc are the products of youth, and their effervescence bears testament to their composer’s evident joie-de-vivre. The Second Concerto, dedicated to the London-based composer Cipriani Potter (1792-1871) is the only piano concerto by Sterndale Bennett in a major key. The orchestral exposition finds the Philharmonia playing with an almost authenticist approach – textures are light and phrasing a continual delight. Interesting how the piano enters the argument, just taking over from the orchestra rather than being ‘formally announced’. Binns is ever alive to the lively possibilities of the solo part and Braithwaite ensures that passages that could otherwise sound dull are here given uncommon care.

Sterndale Bennett’s imagination is to the fore in the second movement (marked ‘Adagio espressivo’) where the spare single line of the soloist is pitted against pizzicato strings. It is a most delicate effect, and indeed this movement is marked by its prevalent tendresse. Most fitting, then, that the ‘Vivace giocoso’ finale is as affable as can be. Binns provides some sparkling scalic work guaranteed to raise a smile.

The single-movement Adagio is a seven-minute dream. Andrew Cope, who edited the score used in this recording, actually found the piece in the Royal Academy of Music library. He suggests this was an alternative slow movement for the Third Concerto (and may have been played by Bennett at the work’s première, in Leipzig in 1837). The somewhat stormier middle section is grippingly presented by Binns and Braithwaite.

The Fifth Concerto was actually composed before the Fourth, but the latter piece was published first. Right from the first bars, it is clear that this work is of more serious intent that No. 2. The mysterious air that surrounds the opening, with its ‘sighing’ gestures, creates a sense of disquiet never fully banished in this movement. It is clear there is a remarkable imagination at work here. The piano writing also has more quasi-improvisatory freedom than was the case in No. 2 while the influence of Mendelssohn is most obvious in the light-footed finale. The slow movement, a ‘Romanza pastorale’, has an apt subtitle of, ‘A stroll through the meadows’. After the disturbances of the first movement, this ten-minute oasis of repose is most welcome. Binns finds a great deal of poetry in the solo part and the Philharmonia responds with clear affection. This must have been one contented afternoon stroll – a more lively passage beginning around 3’30 provides contrast.

Geoffrey Bush, who edited the finale of the Fifth Concerto (removing, according to him, ‘superfluous passage work’), also provides scholarly notes for this release that are as informative as they are readable.

Strongly recommended.

Colin Clarke

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