STERNDALE BENNETT Piano Sonata SCHUMANN Symphonic Etudes
The long-neglected British composer William Sterndale Bennett moved in the highest musical circles, being a close friend of both Mendelssohn and Schumann. There’s an aptness to the programming of this disc, Bennett’s sonata having been dedicated to Mendelssohn on the occasion of his wedding in 1837, while Schumann’s Études symphoniques were in turn dedicated to Bennett. And how good it is to hear this sonata – which I hadn’t previously encountered – a big, bold work, contemporary with those of Schumann and an interesting gap-filler in the period directly after Beethoven and Schubert.
Bennett sticks to the conventional four movements and, if you don’t exactly come away whistling the tunes, it scores high on drama and there’s plenty of contrast within it. Hiroaki Takenouchi could perhaps have given the first movement more of an overall sweep and had a slightly more fearless approach in the Scherzo second movement (less to do with sheer speed and more about keeping the accompaniment at a lower dynamic level) but he shapes the Mendelssohnian Trio elegantly and the slow movement is nicely songful. Bennett’s drivingly virtuoso finale is a real test of an artist’s stamina and Takenouchi gives it his all, finding good contrast in the occasional moments of introspection.
Takenouchi plays the earliest published version of Schumann’s Études symphoniques, which is not helped by its somewhat meandering final étude – Schumann was surely right to rethink this. But here the competition on disc is intense. In an effort to make the piece his own, Takenouchi seems to try too hard. Rather than opening with a majestic sweep, he picks at particular details, dulling the sense of movement; and the agogic pauses of Étude 1 sound warning bells for what is to come. There’s also a sense that Takenouchi is at times struggling with the physical aspects of this piece – and numbers such as the Études 3, 4 and 10 don’t really take off. Matters improve slightly in Étude 8, which avoids becoming too percussive, while I was heartened that he didn’t take the final number too slowly. But this doesn’t change a thing in terms of the Schumann discography. I’ll be sticking to Hamelin, Anda (live at the 1955 Edinburgh Festival) and the extraordinary Alexander Romanovsky.