Sir William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) was on occasions an Englishman abroad – a few times to Leipzig where he could be found in the company of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. He dedicated his F-minor Piano Sonata (1837) to Mendelssohn, and it is very much in the musical image of the dedicatee if without quite emulating him, but it is attractive, fluent and well-crafted music, the piano being Bennett’s instrument on which he was a virtuoso. The longest movement is the first (helped in its expansiveness by a lengthy exposition, duly repeated by Hiroaki Takenouchi), expressive within its tempo moderation, and played stylishly by the pianist, although are there quieter dynamic markings than those he reproduces, one wonders? The remaining movements are a muscular Scherzo and poetic Trio, the latter anticipating Brahms’s shorter Pieces, then an elegant and songful slow movement and a Finale (also with repeated exposition) that vies between the heroic and the lyrical, yet reaches a petered-out conclusion that is a mid-air surprise, although maybe the lack of a grandstand finish is to be welcomed.
Bennett’s Sonata is pleasing music in many ways, although I do think that leaving out the repeats would aid the work’s concision (there are no lead-back bars and the returns come across here as more slavish than beneficial) and balance between the movements would not be harmed, and anyway there are no great musical complexities to unravel. It’s a likeable piece, however, played with consideration, if put in the shade by Schumann’s Symphonic Studies, his Opus 13, and dedicated to Bennett. Here we enter the world of a genius, if troubled, composer, his great music running a gamut of emotions. Unfortunately Takenouchi is found wanting at times – as early as the ‘Thema’ (rather foursquare) and ‘Etude I’ (mannered hesitations), and elsewhere his rendition is – forgive the pun – rather studied, with arousing flights of fancy, the sense of the music as ‘ink still wet’, not given much chance to soar and inveigle the listener’s senses. In other words, Schumann’s music doesn’t respond fully to a literal approach, and while this isn’t always true of Takenouchi’s response, it is the case for enough of it, although technically he has its measure, very assured. Furthermore, his volume-range of forte to fortissimo is a further restrictor – little that is delicate, soft, let alone pianissimo here – although the recorded sound is generally pretty good in its closeness, even if the perspective isn’t always consistent. To add to doubts, despite wearing spectacles, the booklet note’s tiny print is something of a trial to read.