Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concertos: in c; in E?.
Howard Shelley (pn, cond); Tasmanian SO
HYPERION 67720 (71:12)
Sir Julius Benedict was one of the most protean musicians of the Victorian era. Born in Stuttgart in 1804 to a local banker, he studied with Hummel and Weber, who both influenced his light textured, early-Romantic keyboard style. Late in life, he wrote a biography of Weber. He met Beethoven several times. Early on,
Benedict spent nine years in Naples, writing three operas influenced by Rossini. Already, he was more interested as a composer in pleasing rather than innovating.
In 1835, he moved to London, where he remained for the next 50 years. Benedict held many conducting engagements at theaters, provincial festivals, and, for four years, at the Liverpool Philharmonic Society. In 1848, one year after Mendelssohn’s death, he conducted
with Jenny Lind making her debut in oratorio. He was Lind’s accompanist on her 1850 American tour. Benedict was a prominent society figure, with an agreeable personality that shows in his piano concertos. His solo pieces include many operatic fantasias, and fantasias on Irish, Scottish, and Welsh melodies. As evidence of his catholic tastes, he edited Beethoven’s piano music and major works by Dussek, Mendelssohn, and Weber. Arias from his operas remained in the repertoires of Golden Age singers, including McCormack, Galli-Curci, and Tetrazzini.
His C-Minor Concerto, premiered in 1850, actually was the second of the two piano concertos on this CD. It begins with an Allegro maestoso rigorously worked out between the soloist and orchestra, in the Mendelssohn manner. One of Benedict’s favorite devices occurs here: the piano matched with a solo cello in the salon idiom. He repeats this gesture in the second movement, which is linked to the first. It is an Andante pastorale, introduced with a long solo horn call that recurs throughout the movement. One may be reminded here of the gracious slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Second Concerto, although the melodic content is entirely Benedict’s, both wistful and serene. In the last movement, the piano enters with a galop, which later is developed into a fugato. The work ends with elegant fireworks for the soloist.
The first of these concertos, in E?, was premiered in 1837, but not published until 1867, when it was revived. This may be taken as evidence of the conservative tastes of the Victorians at this late date. Chopin’s concertos are a considerable influence on the piece. The first movement, for instance, is longer than the second and third put together. Also like Chopin, the first movement features grand orchestral tuttis spiked with the sound of the trumpet, but a sparing, delicate accompaniment to the soloist. Some of the filigree work in the solo part of the first movement clearly descends from Chopin too. Nevertheless, the melodic content here is mainly like Weber in his
mode. The next movement is an Andante in nocturne style, evoking John Field. Once again, Benedict gives us an episode for piano and solo cello. The last movement, a Rondo brillante, has the same tempo marking as the final movement of the C-Minor, Allegro con spirito. There is a strong whiff of Weber’s
Invitation to the Dance
, both in the style and in the structure.
Walter Macfarren taught piano at the Royal Academy of Music from 1846 to 1903. He also appeared there as a conductor. He was highly esteemed as a teacher and pianist of the early-Romantic school. One of his pupils was “Old Timber,” the great conductor Sir Henry Wood. He edited Mozart’s piano music and Beethoven’s sonatas, along with 240 numbers of a series called “Popular Classics” for the piano. The Concertstück, from 1881, is his only surviving work for piano and orchestra. It is clearly modeled on the shorter pieces for piano and orchestra by Schumann and Mendelssohn, with a theme echoing the latter’s
Songs without Words
. Sober and ruminative in mood, it exploits the darker colors of the orchestra. Though finely composed, it must have seemed anachronistic at the time of Parry and Stanford’s early triumphs.
Howard Shelley deserves much thanks for championing all three of these deserving and delightful pieces. With his excellence as a Chopin and Hummel stylist, there is no questioning the authenticity of his renditions of these works. It is a pleasure just to sit back and listen to how beautifully Shelley plays the piano. His direction of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra is powerful and incisive. They are with him all the way. I learned only recently that the Tasmanian Symphony has recorded a Beethoven cycle. Could it be something of a sleeper? Ben Connellan, a former Chandos engineer, has provided sound that is warm, full, and detailed. I own numerous Howard Shelley albums, but there is none I have enjoyed more than this one. I only wish that my old Victorian literature professor were alive to hear it.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
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