Englishman William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75), born in Sheffield, was a prodigy who entered the Royal Academy of Music in London aged ten and he’d return there as a professor, his pupils including Hubert Parry and Arthur Sullivan. Bennett went from boy to man as a respected composer and a distinguished pianist, admired by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann (Bennett travelled to Leipzig to meet both as part of extended working visits), he was knighted in 1871 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Bennett wrote six Piano Concertos. Here are the first three, 1832-34, all classically inclined in design (Berlioz had already written his Symphonie fantastique, and the composers met, cordially as men, if less so in musical opinion). The First Piano Concerto opens boldly, as if Weber was at Bennett’s side, and soon settles into a winsome second-subject. The piano-writing – spirited and elegant – is as idiomatic as one might expect from a composer who was also a fine pianist – and throughout this D-minor work one admires Bennett’s compositional fluency and decorous touches. He wasn’t an innovator though or a boundary-breaker, and what he does is done well-enough within his comfort zone, although not all his ideas are equally inspired, unevenness being the overall result. The slow movement opens atmospherically, the piano makes a soulful entrée but somehow the impression doesn’t last the duration. It’s all very nice though, thoroughly agreeable, and the work is rounded by a Scherzo, somewhat Mendelssohnian if without his genius.
Of the remaining works here, the E-flat Concerto opens in cantabile fashion before developing greater punch, the invention vying between ear-catching and something more ordinary, if charming, certainly in the central ‘Fantasia’, which has a story-telling aspect, but the Finale’s suspenseful build-up finds at the end of it something less than anticipated. The C-minor example, by a few minutes the longest piece here, is overall the finest of these Concertos, almost operatic in the orchestral introduction, the piano’s entry weighty and dramatic, music that sings and sprints, and which continues to impress, although (sorry!) the Finale lacks for a winning tune.
It may be swings and roundabouts in terms of musical quality and listener engagement, but there is no doubting Howard Shelley’s superbly stylish and dynamic playing, his score-serving virtuosity and sensitivity a marvel on its own terms; and his direction of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra brings tight-knit ensemble and much responsiveness, admirably recorded.