William Sterndale Bennett’s Piano Concertos Naive Yet Lovely

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William Sterndale Bennett: piano concertos (Hyperion)

In half a century of listening to music, I have never attended a work by the foremost English composer of the Victorian era, a man who lived and died a few streets from my London house. Bennett (1816-1875) was acclaimed in his teens as the next Mendelssohn for a D minor piano concerto that Mendelssohn himself, sitting in the audience, found promising. Two more concertos followed before the lad was twenty, the third being praised in Leipzig by no less a contender than Robert Schumann.

Bennett, on the strength of these successes, became the go-to man for running new colleges and foundations, the archetype Victorian administrator, upright, incorruptible and irredeemably conservative. He thought Verdi ‘immeasurably inferior’ to Rossini and struck Schumann off the Royal Academy syllabus. His own gift, such as it was, was crushed by his onerous public duties.

The first three piano concertos, revived by Howard Shelley and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, reveal why Bennett was so highly rated in his teens and why he so quickly crashed. The first opens with an arresting theme but cannot find a counterpoint. The second, in E-flat major has almost all the ingredients of a successful piano concerto until the ear recognises them generically from greater works. The confidence of the third concerto is breathtaking. It takes minutes to discover its foundations are hollow.

The reason Bennett was initially so acclaimed and ultimately so forgotten is that he never once allows himself to look ahead. Mendelssohn is his role model, but Mozart even more so – and not even late Mozart, but early-middle. Bennett writes as Mozart would have done if he was making a Salieri pastiche – second-rate tunes with predictable development. Bennett is not so much conservative as reactionary, an artist of no vision. Yet these performances, led by Shelley from the keyboard, are none the less enjoyable – as much for the naivety of Bennett’s presumption as for the foreknowledge of his utter failure. Call it Schadenfreude, call it what you will, but I loved my 80 minutes with Sterndale Bennett. And so, I suspect, will you.

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Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review.