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William STERNDALE BENNETT (1816-1875)
Overture, The May Queen (1842) [6:27]
Overture, The Wood Nymphs (1839) [13:42]
Symphony in G minor Op. 43 (1863) [23:41]
Overture, The Naiades (1836) [12:32] *
Overture, Parisina (1835) [8:05]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite *
rec. early 1990s? London. ADD
LYRITA SRCD.206 [64.35]


Wow! What an enjoyable disc — never be put off by a dull CD picture.

Here, one might imagine that we were listening to some newly discovered and inspired music by Mendelssohn. The romantic overtures are scintillating and radiate considerable warmth. Such apparent similarities to Mendelssohn become clear when one reads in the notes that Sterndale Bennett had a fascination and close association with the master.

The composer’s life makes interesting reading. The death of his father - when William was aged two - had, unexpectedly, proved a good turn because his grandparents had lifted him from the depressing gloom of industrial Sheffield where he was born and taken him to the rural elegance of Cambridge where he grew up. In a forward-looking educational environment the young William prospered with a good start in life. This led to a successful career in music and eventually turned full circle when he came back to Cambridge as a professor at the University. From what we hear in this music, one wonders how such a talented composer could have become so neglected? The compositions are skillfully written with stirring rhythms and lush orchestration.

Having had no previous access to this composer I decided to put it in context by listening to other works. The only recordings I could find were also issued on the Lyrita label: Piano Concertos 1 and 4 on SRCD 204, and Piano Concertos 2 and 5 on SRCD 205 with Malcolm Binns and the Philharmonia under Nicholas Braithwaite. Although imaginatively written and well crafted as the concertos 2 and 5 undoubtedly were, I found this disc to be more inspired. See Colin Clarke’s Concerto reviews linked above.

Three of the four Sterndale Bennett overtures deal with the fantasy world of spirits and fairies popular in the mid 19th Century. Weber had his Oberon and Der Freischütz; Mendelssohn had his A Midsummer’s Night Dream and dabbled with an unfinished Loreley legend (Op.98); Lortzing his Undine; Offenbach his Les fées du Rhin, and Wallace with his Lurline. I could go on. This was a period when Europe enjoyed fantasy tales of rustic folklore and when even serious-minded members of the establishment believed in the existence of the ‘little people’.


The May Queen is a pageant - called ‘A Pastoral’ by Bennett and its writer Chorley - which is full of rustic charm with amorous interaction between the May Queen and her suitor. It involves a fight between Robin Hood and the Queen’s Lover before the real Queen Beth arrives and shuns Robin, Captain of the Foresters, for his outrage. Calm is restored in a short finale. The work, printed in a Novello Edition includes a piano version of the overture exactly as it is played in the full score used here. The piece is gushing with energy and engaging choppy rhythms that must have been ‘modern’ for the time. It is a pity that some of the tracery played by the first violins is masked by other sections of the orchestra, but this doesn’t detract unduly.


The Wood Nymphs, an earlier work, is more inspired. A tranquil hymn-like opening flows into a gentle and endearing tripping measure provided by staccato woodwind - so appropriate for such dainty creatures with fluttering wings. The music is bright and contains purposeful thematic content, punctuated by rousing chords that promote power. Bennett uses his orchestral forces well. It seems to me that here A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream meets Iolanthe’s ‘Tripping hither’.

Of the overtures, I think The Naiades is the longest and most spectacularly written with its good imagery, haunting melody lines and frothy, skipping rhythms. Opening with a lush, seductive main theme - not unlike one I remember from Marschner’s Der Vampyr - the piece moves forward with meaningful purpose and gain in energy. A linking pizzicato effect favoured by the German School has been heard in a Beethoven symphony.


Parisina, the earliest piece is heavier in character than the overtures although it opens with an initial gentleness. Gathering twists and turns eventually lead to a stabilizing plateau. Pleasant as it is, this is the least maturely constructed work even though the piece underwent many revisions after the first performance. Nevertheless it contains elements that sparkle.

The Symphony in G minor is a light yet endearing symphonic work. In fact Bennett himself referred to it as his Overture-Symphonique when in its original three movement form. He then added a fourth movement and dropped any reference to ‘Overture’. Its lightness remains and he could have been mocked as Tchaikovsky had been over giving such a light work the formal title of ‘Symphony’ even if its symphonic form is correct.

Nevertheless, the work is spectacularly atmospheric with a swirling, sturdy theme pervading the first movement. This depicts a river representing ‘the waves of life’. I just wonder if Smetana had ever heard the work because it holds similarities in wind and string sections to his tone poem, The Moldau or Vltava (1874). The middle movement, a Minuet and Rondo is lifted from a previous piece written as a Cambridge Installation Ode. This has elegant charm while the following Larghetto stirs the emotions and conveys an idyllic longing.

Amazingly, the last movement was written on the train from London to Cambridge - about 1 hours in those days. The catchy swirling theme of the scherzo owes something to Hungarian influence. The urgency shown in this movement is maintained until it reaches an unexpected finish, without the usual recapitulation or coda.

The recording is stunning with the agile Philharmonic and Philharmonia on form. Special mention should be made of the wonderful Philharmonic’s brass section in the Symphony’s 2nd movement where their sonic blend is superb. Throughout, the scores are sensitively read by Braithwaite and he is successful in teasing out good dynamics from the excellent forces around him.

The notes are in English only.

Raymond Walker

See also review by Rob Barnett


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