William STERNDALE BENNETT (1816-1875)
The May Queen, Overture (1842-4) [6:27]
The Wood Nymphs, Overture (1838) [13:42]
Symphony in G minor, Op. 43 (1864) [23:41]
The Naiades, Overture* (1836) [12:32]
Parisina, Overture (1835) [8:05]
London Philharmonic Orchestra, *Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
rec. no information given
LYRITA SRCD 206 [64:35]
The music of William Sterndale Bennett, like that of some other second-tier British composers, is modelled explicitly on standard Austro-German models - in this case, on Mendelssohn, Weber, and the other transitional composers of the generation that immediately succeeded Beethoven. This is no surprise since, although Sterndale Bennett remained based in London for most of his life, he enjoyed several prolonged sojourns in Leipzig at Mendelssohn's request. Indeed, there's even a "Leipzig sound" to his orchestration: his deployment of the instruments in block groups, together and separately - the woodwind choir gets plenty of use, for example, but rarely does a single principal step out for a solo - suggests an attempt to re-create the blended sonority of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in its homogenizing home acoustic.
The G minor Symphony, the literal and figurative centrepiece of the program, dates from 1863-4, when the composer returned to Germany after establishing himself as a teacher, conductor and pianist in England. It's a very Germanic piece indeed, both in the basic solidity and logical working-out of the themes and in its occasional squareness. But it's a better score than, say, the similarly unfamiliar symphonies of Burgmüller and Staehle (Sterling CDS-1046-2), offering a greater unity and mastery of form, a more assured craftsmanship, and a more consistent melodic inspiration. In fact, the piece reminds me of Schumann's Fourth: it has a similar dynamic, driving energy relieved by quiet, lyrical passages, and plenty of drama, associated with G minor since Mozart's time. The principal differences from Schumann are Sterndale Bennett's eschewing of cyclic elements and absence of associated neurosis - the Briton's overall demeanour remains affirmative and unclouded. The delicate woodwind passage at 1:42 of the finale, led by the oboe, is particularly delicious.
The four concert overtures that bracket the symphony are earlier pieces, three of them dating from the period of the composer's travels to Leipzig; he began work on The May Queen while he was there as well, but the piece ended up premiering in Liverpool. They're all solid, engaging pieces, akin to the concert overtures of Schumann and Mendelssohn; only The Wood Nymphs starts feeling a bit padded before it's over. The title of The Naiades might lead you to expect Fairy Music à la Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, but the music more readily recalls Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage: basically cast in a spacious triple meter with a gentle, rocking motion, it occasionally erupts into more dramatic tuttis. Parisina, after Byron's poem, certainly has the sort of grand epic quality considered "Byronic": there's a broad, lyrical second subject, but it's the heroic drama that prevails.
Braithwaite's leadership is sympathetic and committed; he takes some care over detail. In the symphony's second movement, note the seamless transition from forte trumpets to softer horns during the fanfare episode at 2:38. He draws a polished, enthusiastic response from both orchestras. The sound quality is convincing enough, with a modicum of ambience coloring the vivid, direct orchestral image.
This is definitely repertoire worth getting to know. It's unlikely that these works will be turning up in the concert hall any time soon so this disc is well worth tracking down.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Assured craftsmanship and melodic inspiration, dynamic, driving energy, lyrical passages and plenty of drama … see Full Review