British Music Society, Michael Round
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.