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Unwavering conviction and … constantly expressive musicality

Myron Silberstein, Fanfare

My first item of praise for this recording is its programming. Readers familiar with my reviews and Want Lists know that I am highly sympathetic to musicians who rescue repertoire from obscurity. But there are two caveats to my sympathy: First, the music’s obscurity must be undeserved; second, the performance must be of service to the music—a poor performance hinders the music’s cause more than the mere act of making it available to listeners helps.

Hiroaki Takenouchi wins on both these counts: William Sterndale Bennett’s First Piano Sonata is a very good piece of music that deserves to be heard, and Takenouchi’s interpretation and execution make a strong case for it. Even better, Takenouchi’s programming places the Bennett in a context that may attract mainstream listeners.

The current program has a sound, specific musicological connection: Schumann and Bennett were personal friends, Schumann was a passionate advocate for Bennett’s music, and Schumann dedicated his Symphonic Études to Bennett.

Bennett himself dedicated his op. 16 Fantasie to Schumann, which would have made it an even more fitting discmate from a musicological perspective. From a purely musical perspective, though, the sonata complements Schumann’s Études very well. The four-movement, 36-minute sonata is ambitious, soul-searching, and intimidatingly virtuosic.

Takenouchi plays it with unwavering conviction and with constantly expressive musicality. The first movement in particular requires a long view, and Takenouchi understands where transitional material is going, how sequences build, and how musical material develops.

Takenouchi’s playing of the Schumann is as attentive, thoughtful, expressive, and impressive as his playing of the Bennett. The Études’ considerable technical demands pose no apparent problem for him, and he plays the opening and the slower variations with a great deal of grandeur.

In short, this recording is a refreshing find: an introduction to repertoire that most listeners have surely never heard, and a thoroughly reputable performance of a canonical favorite. The engineering is resonant and live-sounding, albeit a bit too close. Recommended, with minor caveats.

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