William Sterndale Bennett? Though his name suggests that of a Midlands carpet magnate, he was a moderately successful English romantic composer from Sheffield who knew Mendelssohn and Schumann. He’d impressed the former whilst studying at the Royal Academy of Music, travelling to Leipzig late in 1836 and spending seven months in the city. Schumann quickly became Bennett’s close friend, the pair’s relationship continuing until Schumann’s death, and there’s a sweet quote from Bennett’s diary in this disc’s sleeve note, written just before Bennett left Leipzig in 1837: “Schumann has been to spend an hour with me and drink a bottle of Porter… he is one of the finest-hearted fellows I ever knew.” Bennett’s expansive, technically demanding Piano Sonata was offered to Mendelssohn as a wedding gift.
While it’s not quite Mendelssohn or Schumann, it’s a hugely enjoyable listen, played with infectious authority by the young Japanese pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi.
The sonata’s slightly prosaic opening is deceptive; this work gets better and better as it proceeds. Bennett’s stormy scherzo is a grower, the prelude to a heart-stopping slow movement and a vibrant, dark finale with an unexpected throwaway ending.
It’s coupled with Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, which were dedicated to Bennett, its final variation containing an obscure operatic quote urging England to rejoice.
Takenouchi’s lightness of touch is an asset; the faster etudes have an exhilarating lightness though the stops are pulled out for an overwhelming, clangorous coda.
A lovely disc, beautifully recorded.
BMS members, far more than the rest of us, will already be familiar with go-to English Romantic composer William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75). Listeners knowing perhaps just the G minor Symphony and the Capriccio for piano and orchestra will be interested to know how this F minor sonata compares.
All of us will be delighted that a Japanese pianist has honoured the piece enough to make this splendid recording of it.
Bennett was, of course, a close personal friend of Schumann, making this disc’s coupling far more than just a happy coincidence of opus-number. The two men were such firm friends that Mendelssohn jokingly complained to Bennett that he could never see him alone, for Schumann was always with him! Yet it is Mendelssohn, rather than Schumann, who provides the closest musical influence here, and in fact it was Mendelssohn to whom Bennett offered the piece as a wedding present, in 1837.
Less predictably perhaps, Weber is an influence too. Weber in songful rather than acrobatic mood, it must be said – the prevailing texture is of soprano-register aria and steady accompaniment, and the writing, although adventurous for the time, contains few flights of fancy above the stave for such a large work (four movements, 36 minutes, of which 16 are taken up by the first movement). Maybe the key of F minor discouraged such frivolity. Severe critics might notice that the finale’s texture remains unvaried compared to, say, that of Beethoven’s sonata Op 2 No 1 in the same key.
Hiroaki Takenouchi does the piece proud, his tasteful and controlled playing enhanced by an enviable handling of rhythmic flexibility.
The only other recording I know of is from Ilana Pruny on Naxos. She couples the sonata with more Bennett, the Suite Op 24: Takenouchi-san chooses the Schumann work that most of us call by the French title Etudes Symphoniques, though Artalinna opt for a more English alternative: Etudes in Form of Variations “Symphonic Etudes”. This is Schumann’s first version, not the perhaps more familiar second. Musical differences between the two are tiny until the finale, which departs considerably from the Clara-Schumann-edited score than many of us may possess.
Takenouchi is a safe pair of hands, and his interpretation preserves momentum both within each variation and through the structure as a whole.
And – again, as many BMS members will already know – the coupling is perfectly appropriate, for the Etudes are dedicated to none other than Sterndale Bennett himself.
My first item of praise for this recording is its programming. Readers familiar with my reviews and Want Lists know that I am highly sympathetic to musicians who rescue repertoire from obscurity. But there are two caveats to my sympathy: First, the music’s obscurity must be undeserved; second, the performance must be of service to the music—a poor performance hinders the music’s cause more than the mere act of making it available to listeners helps.
Hiroaki Takenouchi wins on both these counts: William Sterndale Bennett’s First Piano Sonata is a very good piece of music that deserves to be heard, and Takenouchi’s interpretation and execution make a strong case for it. Even better, Takenouchi’s programming places the Bennett in a context that may attract mainstream listeners.
The current program has a sound, specific musicological connection: Schumann and Bennett were personal friends, Schumann was a passionate advocate for Bennett’s music, and Schumann dedicated his Symphonic Études to Bennett.
Bennett himself dedicated his op. 16 Fantasie to Schumann, which would have made it an even more fitting discmate from a musicological perspective. From a purely musical perspective, though, the sonata complements Schumann’s Études very well. The four-movement, 36-minute sonata is ambitious, soul-searching, and intimidatingly virtuosic.
Takenouchi plays it with unwavering conviction and with constantly expressive musicality. The first movement in particular requires a long view, and Takenouchi understands where transitional material is going, how sequences build, and how musical material develops.
Takenouchi’s playing of the Schumann is as attentive, thoughtful, expressive, and impressive as his playing of the Bennett. The Études’ considerable technical demands pose no apparent problem for him, and he plays the opening and the slower variations with a great deal of grandeur.
In short, this recording is a refreshing find: an introduction to repertoire that most listeners have surely never heard, and a thoroughly reputable performance of a canonical favorite. The engineering is resonant and live-sounding, albeit a bit too close. Recommended, with minor caveats.
Exhilarating playing here from pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi, who champions the work of the 19th-century English virtuoso William Sterndale Bennett, and now tackles his demandingly muscular Sonata in F minor, Op. 13.
The 20-year-old composer gave the piece to Mendelssohn as a wedding gift when he befriended him in Leipzig, where he also became firm friends with Schumann, who dedicated his masterly Symphonic Etudes to Bennett.
It’s also played with great panache on this recording.
Sterndale Bennett and Schumann
London-based Japanese pianist Hiro Takenouchi has a fascination for lesser-known and even unknown repertoire, and this is very much reflected in his latest disc, pairing of piano music by William Sterndale Bennett with Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes.
The two composers met and became friends soon after Sterndale Bennett arrived in Leipzig, a friendship which lasted until Schumann’s death in 1856. Schumann championed Sterndale Bennett’s music and the young Englishman repaid this generosity by dedicating his Fantasia Op 16 to Robert Schumann.
The uninitiated could be forgiven for mistaking Sterndale Bennett for Schumann. His Piano Sonata in F minor, Op 13 is romantically expansive, virtuosic, lyrical and emotionally intense, with a narrative thread which Takenouchi carries confidently through the entire work with only occasional moments of repose. It recalls Schumann’s Piano Concerto in its thematic unity and symphonic scope, and Takenouchi handles this with bravura ease and a warm, refined sound.
The Symphonic Etudes (1834), which Schumann dedicated to Sterndale Bennett, are similarly muscular, the opening theme stated with clear intent and authority. The movements which follow are dramatically paced, richly coloured and constantly alert to Schumann’s quirks and emotional volte-faces, from the extrovert to the intimate, and Takenouchi succeeds in managing the piano sound perfectly to achieve this (the recording was made at St John the Evangelist in Oxford which I understand has a superb Steinway D).
The two works and their composers complement one another wonderfully.
William Sterndale Bennett Piano Sonata, Op. 13 (1837)
Last year (2016) saw Sterndale Bennett’s centenary. Hiroaki Takenouchi has played a significant role in bringing this composer’s Romantic-era music further out into the sunshine. This recording was made as part of that effort. In addition, he has made studio recordings of some WSB miniatures for the BBC and these were heard as part of Donald MacLeod’s Composer of the Week series on Radio 3 in April 2017: Butterfly, Op 33 No 5, Études Nos. 2 and 6, Op 11, February, WoO 56 and Two Characteristic Studies, Op 29. He has done a similar service on radio for the piano music of A.C. Mackenzie.
Work on the writing of Sterndale Bennett’s op. 13 Piano Sonata took place in London. It was completed in Leipzig where the young composer stayed for more than seven months. These years saw a whirl of activity in which Mendelssohn took up the English composer’s cause. It was Mendelssohn who conducted the premiere of WSB’s first piano concerto at the Gewandhaus. The op. 13 Sonata is dedicated to the German composer on the occasion of his marriage in 1837.
The Sonata is in four movements: I. Moderato espressivo; II. Allegro agitato; III. Moderato grazioso and IV. Presto agitato.
The first of these runs to an extraordinary 16:12 in a tirelessly inventive flow of romantic bel canto with moments of bell-like lyrical repose. The emotional temperature cools and then rises a degree or so for the six-minute Allegro agitato. The effect overall recalls the Schumann Piano Concerto.
Robert Schumann Symphonic Études, first version (1834)
The Schumann Symphonic Études (1834) were dedicated to William Sterndale Bennett so there is a case for these two works sharing a disc. Bennett responded in kind by dedication his own Fantasy op. 16 to Schumann.
Takenouchi’s reading is romantically affluent, poundingly sonorous and rich in pathos. I especially enjoyed the stiff-legged strut of Étude IV but he is generally in commanding form throughout.
Artalinna thoughtfully provides an access track for each of the work’s theme and twelve variations. The pianist has written the helpful booklet notes and they are in English with German and French translations.
Takenouchi revels in the tempestuous ferment that shakes these two peaks of the romantic fleuve. He is excitingly recorded with unflinching stopping power.