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Hyperion Records

CDA67720 - Benedict & Macfarren: Piano Concertos
CDA67720

Recording details: April 2008
Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Produced by Ben Connellan
Engineered by Veronika Vincze
Release date: July 2009
Total duration: 70 minutes 50 seconds

'Howard Shelley, conducting from the keyboard, produces blistering accounts of the solo parts, and his Tasmanians play their hearts out. The recorded sound is fine, too. Recommended with every enthusiasm: 70 minutes of unalloyed pleasure' (International Record Review)

'Both works contain arrestingly characterful and lovely things. Benedict's aim is to dazzle his listeners with dashing brilliance … Shelley is a beguiling player … fresh, fluent, lucid, suave and never tempted to oversell' (The Sunday Times)

'Pianophiles and collectors of rarities will gravitate to this beautifully performed disc. It's a tour-de-force of pianism-plus-directing from Howard Shelley' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The TSO plays with the punch and style of the 40s movie studio orchestras … and the works are simply delightful … with a classy piano leading the way, this great find is simply magical gold laced with genius. The quickest way to cut through jaded classical ears is with a dose of this gem' (Midwest Record, USA)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Benedict & Macfarren: Piano Concertos
Allegro maestoso  [10'13]
Allegro moderato  [17'05]
Andante  [7'43]

With Volume 48 of our groundbreaking Romantic Piano Concerto series we reach very uncharted territory indeed. Sir Julius Benedict has been all but forgotten today but he is yet another composer who gives the lie to the idea that Britain was ‘a land without music’ in the nineteenth century. Though born in Germany, Benedict settled in London in 1835, having already established a career as composer and pianist on the continent. He arrived in a city which had been the pianistic centre of Europe for the previous thirty years (though that role was shortly thereafter lost to Paris and the new generation of Romantic composers we remember today) and was soon performing his two concertinos in A flat and E flat, the latter work later being expanded into the E flat concerto recorded here. The C minor concerto was to follow in 1850. Both works are very much in the tradition of Hummel, of whom Benedict was a pupil, and combine brilliant virtuosity with an easy lyricism.

The even-more-forgotten Walter Macfarren was the brother of better-known George, an early Principal of the Royal Academy of Music. Walter was for many years a piano professor there, his pupils including Matthay and Henry Wood. His music is very much in the style of Mendelssohn and his Concertstück proves to be a very attractive work which could easily pass as one by the greater master.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In the days of Mozart and Beethoven the concerto had been the main vehicle for instrumental musicians to perform their own music in public concerts. Hence the composer’s virtues of form, invention and melodic beauty were balanced against the display of the performer’s skill, technique and expression. During the nineteenth century this classic poise was often skewed in the direction of the performer. Increasingly, the composer and the performer were not the same person, and the concertos favoured by performers were those that gave greatest scope for technical display, including elaborate ornamentation and cadenzas. Such a tendency was deplored by many critics, not least Robert Schumann, whose lone concerto was partly offered as a counter-example.

The rise in virtuosity and showmanship was especially true of the piano concerto, where the rapid improvements in the instrument enhanced its brilliance and steadily added to the audience’s sense of thrill. People flocked to the concert halls, not only to worship star pianists but to marvel at the latest developments in the instrument’s volume, range, rapidity of action, and special effects. Composers sometimes overindulged in the tinkle of extremely high notes as well as the piano’s growing powers of ‘singing’ sustained melodies with rich harmonic accompaniment, often relegating the orchestra to a respectful background status.

The Romantic aesthetic of the piano concerto was that of a contest between the heroic, solitary figure at the keyboard and the massed orchestra, which was also growing larger and louder with each decade. Liszt was the quintessential hero of the piano, as was Paganini of the violin, and his concertos were among the most popular of the time. Nevertheless, Beethoven’s specimens, especially Nos 3, 4 and 5, remained the summit of the genre, and his innovations set the concerto model for many a lesser figure.

The piano concerto was popular in Victorian London, and was often included in the typically mixed orchestral concert programmes of the period. But the public expected the lions of the pianoforte to come from the Continent. Julius Benedict (1804–1885) did indeed come from Germany, having settled in London in 1835. He is one of a long series of European composers who after completing their training and experience in a number of capitals finally landed in London, where the opportunities for performance and publication were unrivalled, and where the public, far from favouring British composers like William Sterndale Bennett, was predisposed towards those from the Continent. Indeed, Benedict’s career closely resembles Handel’s of more than a century before. Both men were born and raised in Germany, went to Italy to complete their training (Handel for four years, Benedict for nine), and eventually settled in London for a long and successful career as a keyboard virtuoso, conductor and composer. The analogy goes further. In both cases Italian opera was a predominant element in their musical style, but they gradually came to understand and cater to English tastes. Benedict’s most successful work by far was the English opera The Lily of Killarney (1865).

His first teacher was the great Czech pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and his early successes were mostly at the piano. By 1828 he had published five piano works in Leipzig and Vienna, including one, a ‘Rondeau brillant’ in A flat major (Op 5), with orchestral accompaniment. This may have ended up as the finale of a concerto in the same key, but the only portion of it now extant is an opening movement: the title page of the manuscript records that it was performed at the Teatro del Fondo, Milan, on 26 May 1827. Shortly afterwards it was published as a ‘Concertino’, Op 18, by Hofmeister of Leipzig. Either the first movement or the whole concerto was performed at a benefit concert at the King’s Theatre, London, in 1836, with the composer at the keyboard.

Benedict’s second concerto, in E flat major, was also brought out gradually. He performed the first movement at the King’s Theatre concert room, London, in 1837, where it was described as ‘New Concerto (First Movement), E flat’. The same movement was published under the title ‘2ème Concertino, Op 19’ by Schott of Mainz in about 1839. The whole work appeared in 1867 in an edition by Cramer & Co of London, now renumbered Op 89; and on 27 April of that year it was premiered in that form by the distinguished pianist Arabella Goddard at the Crystal Palace Saturday concerts, and repeated at the Philharmonic Society on 3 June. Interestingly enough, an independent edition, freshly engraved, was published by B Senff of Leipzig the following year.

A Conzertstück in C minor was premiered by the composer at the Philharmonic Society of London in 1850, and descriptions in the musical press make it clear that this was the full three-movement work later known as the C minor Concerto, published as Op 45 in Leipzig in 1852. It was not uncommon for serious English instrumental works to be published in Germany, where there was a greater domestic demand; Benedict may also have retained German connections. The second and third concertos (on this disc), but not the first (the A flat major), were performed occasionally in England by Goddard and others, until about the time of the composer’s death, and were well received by the critics.

Benedict’s concertos, especially their opening movements, are firmly based on classical models, but they avail themselves of some of Beethoven’s innovations, such as modulating to the complementary key in the opening tutti, bringing in the piano before the orchestra, and placing cadenzas at unexpected places; and Benedict follows Mendelssohn’s example by linking some of the movements. He also invents his own surprises, such as changes of key or tempo—touches of humour possibly borrowed from Rossini; sometimes these only delay the expected cadence or continuation, but at others they tend to disrupt the tonal momentum.

The Piano Concerto in C minor Op 45 starts in Mozartian fashion, with a tense theme in dotted rhythms. It sounds like an orchestral tutti, but the piano soon appears on a diminished-seventh arpeggio, and later, without waiting for a clear ending of the orchestral introduction, enters forcefully in the remote key of E major. The normal complementary key (E flat major) is reached by a roundabout route. The warmly tuneful second subject is started by the piano alone, but a solo cello winds its way in before the quiet conclusion. After a long solo display through various keys, the recapitulation is heard tutta forza. The second subject recurs in a Mozartian C minor rather than a Haydn/Beethoven C major. The coda (energico con fuoco) provides a big build-up towards final-sounding chords, which unexpectedly move away from the tonic. A tonally unanchored passage, with mysterious calls from the woodwinds, ‘glides’ into the next movement, as the Musical World put it in a detailed review.

The Andante pastorale uses the key of the flattened sixth (A flat) favoured by Beethoven in his C minor concerto, and by many subsequent composers. A horn plays an opening melody with a pretty accompaniment on the piano and plucked strings. The piano then takes up the tale. An episode starts in F minor; then comes a totally unexpected shift to Allegro, followed by a tonal surprise with loud piano chords in 6/8, and another mysterious passage with fragmentary phrases for various instruments. If this suggests a romantic narrative, its nature is left to our imagination. The main tune returns and the movement ends in a luscious dream. The finale (Allegro con spirito) begins with a bustling theme in F minor, but it soon becomes clear that the triumphant key of C major will set the mood. Several more surprises are in store: a contrasting section in E major before the middle cadence in G; a fugato, beginning in the strings; and a brief recall of the tune from the Andante, played by the oboe. In the drive to the finish, triplets provide an added rush of excitement.

The Piano Concerto in E flat major Op 89 has a first movement closer to the classic form, perhaps because it was composed earlier. There is an imposing opening tutti: the quietly lyrical opening theme is punctuated by ominous drumrolls. A surprise key change to D major delays the conclusion of the tutti. The piano enters with a flashy solo that soon moves to the dominant of B flat. In that key there are three elements: a new dotted theme for orchestra, later incorporating special effects on the piano (the highest available notes played una corda); a Chopinesque melody for the piano; and a bouncy closing theme. After the piano exits on a climactic cadence in B flat, the orchestra recalls dotted themes from the opening tutti, and the solo begins a long preparation for the E flat recapitulation: there is little or no modulation this time. It culminates in a written-out ‘cadenza in tempo’, also based on the dotted themes. But the recap of the main theme never comes: instead, we find ourselves hearing the piano’s Chopin-like tune in the home key, and after a lot more filigree work the movement ends with a curt orchestral tutti.

The Andante, again in the key of the flattened sixth (B major), uses a concise sonata form, with both first and second subjects led by the soloist; when the first subject returns it is in an ornate variation. The final Allegro con spirito is also in sonata form. After a sixteen-bar introduction the piano solo brings in the main theme, which strongly suggests the galop, a dance fashionable in Victorian ballrooms and exploited by many composers including Liszt. Four bars of dotted rhythms in the orchestra are answered by the piano in even phrases. After a tutti and a second subject, with an attractive diversion in G flat major, the ‘let ’er rip’ build-up begins in Rossinian fashion. Soon the tonality shifts to D flat major, where the galop theme re-enters. As in the opening movement, the long dominant preparation leads to the second subject; and an enigmatic series of modulations delays the final wind-up.

Walter Macfarren (1826–1905) was the son of a dramatist, and the younger brother of one of the leading Victorian composers, George Alexander Macfarren. He had a long career as a piano teacher at the Royal Academy of Music: among his students were Tobias Matthay, Stewart Macpherson and Henry Wood. His vast output of piano pieces is tuneful, amiable and unambitious; like many English musicians of his generation, he evidently took Mendelssohn as his ideal and model. As a student he composed a piano concerto in B minor, performed in 1845 but now lost. His only extant work for piano and orchestra is the Concertstück. He dedicated it to one of his pupils, Nanette Kuhe, the short-lived daughter of Wilhelm Kuhe, a prominent German immigrant who founded and directed the Brighton Musical Festival (1871–82). It was there, in all probability, that Nanette premiered the work in 1881, when it was published with a dedication to her.

The Concertstück, after an opening flourish, embarks on a sombre tune for winds and strings in E minor, which sounds like the main theme of a sonata-form movement, until the music suddenly turns back to E major. The piano then announces the ‘real’ theme, a Mendelssohnian Song Without Words in E major. The strings take it up with rich piano accompaniment, and an equally melodious second subject appears in the dominant key, followed by a trill, cadence, and closing tutti. A sudden change to E flat major heralds a repeat of the second tune; the return of the main song in E major is again prepared in the minor mode. After further developments there is a final-sounding trill for the piano, but the cadence is interrupted with a tutti in C major leading to a cadence in E. Strong double octaves for the piano begin the drive to the finish.

The author would like to thank Christina Bashford, Therese Ellsworth and Michael Spring for help in the research for these notes.

Nicholas Temperley © 2009


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