When Schumann’s Etudes symphoniques appeared in print, in 1837, they bore a dedication to his English composer friend William Sterndale Bennett. Bennett was still only 21 at the time, but was clearly a remarkably precocious talent: the three piano concertos recorded here by Howard Shelley in his ongoing ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’ series for Hyperion were all composed between the ages of 16 and 18. They are more conservative in idiom than the two piano concertos Chopin had composed just a few years earlier, again at a very young age, but Bennett’s handling of the orchestra is more imaginative and weightier. Take the solo clarinet and muted solo horn at the start of the slow movement in the Concerto No 2, or the angular contrapuntal subject which begins the C minor Third Concerto, and the affectingly simple piano melody with pizzicato string accompaniment in the Romance middle movement of the same work.
Howard Shelley is his usual reliable self, making light of technical difficulties, and breathing life into neglected corners of the repertoire. Some of these pieces are short on memorable ideas, but there’s no mistaking their innate musicality, and it isn’t hard to understand why Schumann welcomed Bennett with open arms.