Julius Benedict: Concertos in C minor, Op.45 & E flat Op.89; W. MacFarren: Concertstück

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley, piano & conductor (Hyperion CDA 67720)

9 July 2009 3.5 stars

Romantic Piano 48As we near the fiftieth release in Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series, the enterprise looks determined as ever. And this disc, Vol.48, embodies what's so admirable about the idea while posing an important question: is there really enough decent music out there still to carry on?

Of course, piano concertos were churned out in the 19th century with the kind of worthy industrialism that would have made any Victorian businessman proud. There's no point pretending, then, that there's much great music in the concertos by Julius Benedict on this release, or the slight 1881 Concertstück by Walter Macfarren (1826-1905), the lesser-known brother of George Alexander (himself not exactly a household name these days).

Luckily, however, there are few pianists who can dust off this repertoire and give it sparkle such as can Howard Shelley, a veteran of more than half a dozen previous releases in the series, and that's exactly what he does here in a disc made up entirely of first recordings. The history of Benedict's concertos does not bespeak works of through-composed symphonic integrity – the E flat work, for example, not published as a whole until 1867, thirty years after the composition and premiere of its first movement – and they both betray a variety of influences. Some of these influences are easier to emulate than others and, for that reason, I was less keen on the the C minor concerto 1850, showing an obvious debt to Beethoven. Here the composer's attempts to incorporate structural innovations – including an early flourish by the pianist in the opening movement – do not make up for a slight paucity of inspiration or, simply, a feeling of not being entirely comfortable in a key that must, at the time, have been difficult to dissociate from Beethovenian rhetoric.

The influences of Mendelssohn and of Benedict's first teacher – and, ironically enough, Beethoven's pupil – Johann Nepomuk Hummel are happier ones and I felt a certain sense of relief when at around the 4'20 mark in the Allegro maestoso the mood lightened and Benedict started rattling off some sparkling figurations as his teacher so often did in his concertos. There are plenty of earnest rhetorical flourishes, and some nice lyrical touches, but I was not too upset when the movement came to its (almost comically) extended coda, before leading into the Andante pastorale. This second movement is a pleasant enough stroll through an attractive musical landscape, although I hoped that the more expansive idea introduced by the piano just over a minute in might have been developed a little more. A surprising central allegro section introduces a sense of urgency before we return to the gentle stroll of the movement's opening. The Allegro con spirito final movement is imaginative, with some episodes more effective than others; like the rest of the work I found the lighter, frothier writing – always dispatched with effortless brilliance by Shelley – more enjoyable than the more ambitious attempts to emulate Beethoven.

The E flat major concerto, whose first movement predates the C minor work by almost 15 years, is longer but, in its expressive palette, rather less ambitious. For this reason, I found it greatly more enjoyable. Benedict is composing well within his means – both technically and temperamentally speaking – and the work is jam-packed with irresistible, toe-tapping figurations (such as when it takes off in the first movement at 7'44). The lyrical second subject sounds like it's wandered in from a Field Nocturne while the second and third movements give us more of the same pleasing mix of virtuosity, easy-going melodic writing and charm. There's not much hint of any profundity below the surface, but that surface will have enough to bring a smile to the lips of all but the most jaded pianophile. Macfarren's eleven-minute Concertstück makes a pleasant enough coupling, although doesn't quite have the vivacity to follow the best of Benedict.

Shelley's to be admired for bringing such commitment and conviction to this music and receives able support from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. A worthy addition to the series, then, but not one of the most memorable.

By Hugo Shirley


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CD Review: Howard Shelley in concertos by Ferdinand Hiller (Hyperion)