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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]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
rec. City Hall, Glasgow, 5-7 December 2006
The Romantic Piano Concerto – Volume 43
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.
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
(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
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.
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!
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
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
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.
encourage all readers to buy this CD - and also the fine
releases of Sterndale Bennett’s music on Lyrita.
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.
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
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!
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?
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.
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
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.
Hyperion Romantic Piano Concertos series page
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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