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William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)
Piano Concerto No.4 in F minor Op.19 (1838/39) [27:35]
Caprice in E major Op.22 (1838) [12:49]
Francis Edward Bache (1833-1858)
Piano Concerto in E major Op.18 (1851/1856) [24:42]
Howard Shelley (piano, conductor) 
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
rec. City Hall, Glasgow, 5-7 December 2006
The Romantic Piano Concerto – Volume 43
HYPERION CDA67595 [65:19]

I would challenge anyone to listen to this CD and still insist that in the first half of the nineteenth century Great Britain was a ‘Land without Music’. Of course it has to be confessed that there were some horrendous low points in the musical compositions of that period. But the present works are certainly not amongst them.
For far too long it has been the lazy person’s view to assume that all early nineteenth century British music was influenced solely by Handel and Mendelssohn, important to the national musical life as these composers were.  Whenever a piece of British music from this era is heard, people shake their heads and smile wryly. Of course we do not expect to find the towering giants to match the Liszts, the Chopins and the Wagners of the Continent but to categorise all Early Victorian English music as being either derivative or a pastiche of, Handel and Mendelssohn is wrong-headed and does not do justice to the facts. A more nuanced view reveals that there were allegiances to Rossini, Spohr, Gounod, Brahms, Wagner and Dussek as well as the two named above.  Furthermore a lot of British music of this period owed much to the London Piano School which included Cramer, Clementi and Moscheles. And lastly, some of these British composers actually had a few jolly good ideas of their own!
Geoffrey Bush, writing in 1964, somewhat amusingly but perhaps correctly presents five reasons why Sterndale Bennett’s music is not popular today. These include:
(a) That Bennett was English,
(b) That he was a Victorian,
(c) That he wrote an oratorio The Woman of Samaria,
(d) That he was Professor of Music at Cambridge,
(e) That he was an inferior imitator of Mendelssohn.
It is not my intention to demolish these reasons one by one – although I guess he could not help being born English! But Bush clearly shows the sheer unthinking prejudice that has surrounded Sterndale Bennett and by implication any who were associated with him. For many decades it was intellectual suicide to say that you actually liked a piece of music written by this ‘pedant’ who did not have an original note in his head.
Sterndale Bennett wrote at least five piano concertos and it is with these that he established his reputation in both London and Germany. However, to most musicologists and reviewers - that will admit it - the Fourth is his masterpiece.
I have known Sterndale Bennett's Fourth Piano Concerto since I heard the version by Malcolm Binns with the Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra. This was released in 1990. It has been a favourite of mine since then: if I am honest I rate it higher than many concertos written on the continent at that time – including at least one of those by Mendelssohn!
In October 1838 Sterndale Bennett returned to Leipzig, taking with him the new Concerto in F minor. The first and the last movements were newly composed, but the middle one was a rehash of an earlier Pastorale. Mendelssohn did not like this arrangement and prevailed on the composer to substitute another piece. Sterndale Bennett provided the present Barcarolle which suitably impressed the German. The change was made and the complete Concerto was performed on 17 January 1838 in Leipzig with Mendelssohn conducting.
There is no doubt that this is a great work. Most people, perhaps justifiably, regard the middle movement Barcarolle as the highlight; it is exquisite. Yet it would be wrong to cherry-pick this part of the work. I rate the first movement as being full of striking ideas and in a number of places, sheer poetry and beauty. And the ‘presto agitato’ bristles with interesting music that impresses from the first note to the last. It is a splendid and often moving work that would be popular if concert-goers were given the chance to hear it.
This CD also includes Sterndale Bennett’s Caprice in E Op.22 which was probably composed in 1836 but did not see light of day until it was played at a benefit concert for the composer some two years later. Moscheles found the work ‘spirited and interesting’ but was also concerned at the number of typographical errors in the score – there appeared to be at least a dozen on each page.  I had never heard this work before and I must say that I find it impressive – to my ear there is a quality that seems to look forward to the ‘English Musical Renaissance’. This is not in any spectacular or folk-songy way, but there is a certain timelessness about this music that stops it being pigeonholed as ‘Early Victorian’.  This is a fine introduction to the master’s music.
I encourage all readers to buy this CD - and also the fine releases of Sterndale Bennett’s music on Lyrita.
The other composer represented on this disc is Francis Edward Bache, a pupil of W.S.B. These two composers have very different biographies but were similar in their music and in the reception accorded to it. Common wisdom suggests that Sterndale Bennett’s compositional career peaked early on and a life spent teaching music did not allow him to repeat his youthful triumphs. Bache on the other hand quite simply showed great promise and then died early – from tuberculosis. Bache may not have been in thrall to Sterndale Bennett’s musical ethos, but it was certainly influential.
I recently wrote an article for an American journal discussing Bache’s Piano Trio in D minor.  This work appeared a few years ago on a Dutton CD (CDLX7145) coupled with a few other shorter pieces and songs. However, in my researches, I became aware that there is quite a large body of work in existence including some three piano concertos. Yet little reference is made to these compositions in musical literature: Bache’s sister Constance does not discuss this work or the other concerted pieces in her biography of the composer.
He is usually remembered - if at all - for his Songs Op.16. One teasing anecdote about the composer is that as part of his convalescence he went to live in Torbay. Whilst there he wrote two sets of Souvenirs based on musings from his peregrinations – à la Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage. One, hardly surprisingly, describes Italy but the other looks odd in print – Souvenirs de Torquay!  Surely a desideratum for all enthusiasts of English piano music!
In his three movement Piano Concerto in E major Op.18 we have an excellent work – certainly no-one would claim that it was an essay of great originality or that the composer aspired to genius. But the work has what it takes. It is full of interest, charm and fine pianism and most important of all – lovely tunes. I could not help thinking about the music from Gilbert & Sullivan’s operas as I listened to this work - especially the faster themes. That may put some people off this work – but all I mean to imply by the comparison is that Bache has such a fund of invention for his melodies. And, like the later Sullivan, they sparkle! It is easy to see references to his teacher, Sterndale Bennett, but it is the meditative or reflective nature of much of this music that leads me to rate this concerto so highly. It well balances exuberance and contemplation: it inspires and it moves – what more can a listener ask?
Howard Shelley plays this music convincingly and with no sense of being patronising. He leads the BBC Scottish from the piano stool as would have been the tradition in Sterndale Bennett’s day. The subtlety of the presentation, the sound quality, the programming and the sleeve notes gives it a considerable edge on Malcolm Binns’ 1990 recording. However as the latter recording appears to have been deleted, this is of little concern to the average listener.
This recording demands recognition for three reasons. Firstly that the best of early nineteenth century music holds up well against virtually anything written elsewhere. Secondly that Sterndale Bennett and Bache are composers who are totally worthy of our attention, especially for their craftsmanship and invention. Thirdly, we have to be thankful that Hyperion continues to produce fine recordings of ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ piano concertos.
I hasten to remind the CD producers that there are plenty more candidates in the history of British music for consideration from this period as well as from later years.
John France
Hyperion Romantic Piano Concertos series page


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