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William STERNDALE BENNETT (1816-1875)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in F minor op. 19 (1838) [27:35]
Caprice in E major op. 22 (1836-1838) [12:49]
Francis Edward BACHE (1833-1858)
Piano Concerto in E major op. 18 (1856) [24:42]
Howard Shelley (piano/conductor), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
rec. 5-7 December 2006, City Hall, Glasgow
The Romantic Piano Concerto – Vol. 43
HYPERION CDA67595 [65:19]

Sterndale Bennett’s Fourth Piano Concerto, a work of some strength and substance which was widely admired in the composer’s day, re-enters the CD catalogue.

Younger listeners exploring the pre-Stanford-and-Parry period of British music will have eagerly snapped up the Lyrita reissues of Bennett’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th concertos played by Malcolm Binns. They may have wondered why no. 4, which text-books tell us is the finest, was not included. Older hands will know that, when these recordings were first issued in the early 1990s, a 1986 recording of the Fourth by Malcolm Binns, with the Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra under Hilary Davan Wetton, was available from Unicorn-Kanchana (UKCD 2032). Thus either contractual difficulties or sheer practical considerations left the Lyrita “cycle” incomplete.

The two performances take a quite different view right from the opening orchestral tutti. Wetton is very detailed in his phrasing with a sharp response to dynamics. With his scaled-down strings he seems to want to emphasize Bennett’s Mozartian roots. His approach perhaps lacks overall sweep, which is where Howard Shelley comes in. On a bar-by-bar basis you could find him less attentive, but he binds the individual bars into paragraphs more successfully. There is more sense of overall structure. With his full symphony orchestra, too, he brings the music into the world of post-Mendelssohnian romanticism, generally to its advantage.

It might have been interesting to hear Wetton’s approach carried through with a pianist who felt the same way. When Binns enters he takes a bolder but rather generalized view. He shapes the more romantic themes attractively but, as we know from his Stanford concerto recordings, he can be rather bashy in fortes. His sound at the end of both outer movements is distinctly unpleasant.

Shelley avoids this and also shows more imagination. He brings a vivacity to the chromatic left-hand scales shortly after his first entry, for instance, which creates a dialogue with the more lyrical right-hand. This sort of perceptiveness is not noticeable in Binns. Shelley also allows himself more tempo freedom, sometimes forging ahead impulsively. Whatever the theoretical virtues of a more classical approach, in practice certain passages which sound laboured from Binns emerge convincingly here. I wondered if a Cherkassky or an Earl Wild might not have teased even more humour and scintillating verve from the finale, but pianists of that stature have not played Sterndale Bennett for at least a century. Shelley is sufficiently more convincing than Binns that we can leave in abeyance the question of whether he might have been even better until such a performance actually turns up.

Comparisons in the Caprice produce slightly different results. Under Nicholas Braithwaite’s less detailed but more galvanizing baton the romantic side of Bennett is very much to the fore. Binns’s own pianism appears in a much more favourable light in this context. Above all, a genuine dialogue is set up. Well as Shelley’s pianist-conducted orchestra plays, it is hardly in the nature of such a collaboration to create a dialogue. Perhaps because two minds are at work, 13 minutes of unrelieved lightweight vivacity outstay their welcome less in the Lyrita version.

Still, the main thing is that we now have a good version of the Fourth Concerto in the catalogue. It is perhaps a pity that Shelley did not give us his views on the Third as well, which some commentators rate above the Fourth. Instead we have a concerto which shows us just how good Bennett was.

Francis Edward Bache belongs to a considerable group of British composers – Hurlstone, Coleridge-Taylor, Baines and Butterworth are others that spring to mind – whose early deaths perhaps robbed us of a major figure. Certain of Bache’s shorter piano pieces, and also the Piano Trio, show evidence of considerable potential, as well as a greater opening towards “progressive” continental contemporaries than we find in Bennett or in British music generally at this time. But this concerto, which may never have been performed before, is more of a fun piece, with an unashamedly vulgar second subject in the first movement and a finale that looks ahead to Sullivan as much as it looks back to Mendelssohn. The slow movement is perhaps the highlight, with an operatic main theme that might have strayed in from Balfe and some attractive decoration from the pianist. I feel Shelley pitches into this main theme a bit too heartily. More poetry might be extracted from the movement, and indeed emerges when the theme passes to the solo cello. For the rest, he does what can be done and it’s quite entertaining if you don’t expect too much.

Detailed notes in three languages and excellent recording.

Christopher Howell

see also Review by John France

Note: Sterndale Bennett Piano Concertos: reviews 

Concertos 1 & 3, Caprice, Binns/LPO/Braithwaite Lyrita SRCD 204
Review by Colin Clarke

Concertos 2 & 5, Adagio, Binns/Philharmonia/Braithwaite Lyrita SRCD 205
Review by Colin Clarke




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