Hyperion’s championing of lesser-known repertoire is quite remarkable and this release, volume 74(!) in the Romantic Piano Concerto series, is no exception and stands alongside previous releases of British concertos such as those by Parry and Stanford, Ireland and Delius, Mackenzie and Tovey, and York Bowen.
In December 2006, Howard Shelley convened the same forces to record Sterndale Bennett’s fourth concerto (volume 43) of 1838, arguably his finest. Now he has returned to the three earlier concertos; three concertos from three consecutive years: 1832, 1833 and 1834. Shelley, seated at a modern Steinway, acts as conductor and soloist, and in doing so brings a unified artistic vision to the entirety of this fantastic disc. There is so much variety, from the grandeur of the Mozartian tutti’s of the first concerto (complete with gestures taken straight out of Don Giovanni), to the later intimate chamber moments in the second concerto, and the more Romantic, more virtuosic, style of the third.
These concertos were all written whilst he was a student at the Royal Academy of Music (between the ages of 16 to 18) and thus we get a rapid evolution of style, but at the same time the musical standard throughout is mind-bogglingly high. This was music that was admired by Mendelssohn and Schumann, and whilst some of his thematic material does not stand up to the sort of repetition it receives (especially in the final movements of the first and third concertos), the overall impression is of a composer who was already writing with an exceptional level of professional polish.