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Franz BENDA (1709 - 1786): "Sonatas & Capriccios"

Ludus Instrumentalis

rec: Dec 19 - 21, 2022, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 555 610-2 (© 2023) (65'24")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Franz BENDA: Capriccio 2 in f minor; Sonata in c minor (L3,10); Sonata in B flat (L3,125); Sonata XVII in a minor (L3,118); Sonata XXVII in G (L3,86); Carl HÖCKH (1707-1773): Capriccio 27 & Minuetto in d minor (attr); Capriccio 35 & Angloise in f sharp minor (attr); Capriccio 38 & Polognese in G (attr)

Evgeny Sviridov, violin; Alexander Scherf, cello; Liza Solovey, theorbo; Stanislav Gres, harpsichord

"On the seventh of this month one of the most noteworthy and highly esteemed men of his time died, the royal Konzertmeister Franz Benda... It is generally known that he was one of the greatest musicians, and that upon his instrument, the violin, he created an epoch." This is how a Berlin paper announced the death of Franz Benda on 7 March 1786.

As a child Franz sang in St Nicholas Church in Prague, later in the court chapel in Dresden. When his voice broke he concentrated on violin playing, studying the music of Vivaldi. He found his first jobs in various aristocratic households in Vienna, but after a while moved to Warsaw, where he worked for more than two years. It was here that his reputation started to rise, and in 1733 he entered the service of the then Crown Prince of Prussia, Frederick, who resided in Ruppin. In 1736 he moved with Frederick to Rheinsberg and in 1740 to Berlin, when Frederick succeeded his father as King of Prussia. His stature was reflected by his salary; only the two Graun brothers were higher paid.

One of the features of his playing and his compositions was their true cantabile character, which was noted, for instance, by Charles Burney: "[Scarce] a passage can be found in his compositions, which is not in the power of the human voice to sing". This analogy with singing is appropriate: Benda was educated as a singer, and even after he had been appointed as violinist in the court chapel in Berlin he still sang arias on a regular basis at court. Through his compositions, his playing as well as his activities as a teacher he was considered one of the fathers of the German violin school (together with Johann Georg Pisendel who worked in Dresden). One of his pupils was Johann Peter Salomon, who was responsible for Haydn's visiting London twice.

The above-mentioned Charles Burney wrote that Benda had "acquired a great reputation in his profession, not only by his expressive manner of playing the violin, but by his graceful and affecting compositions for that instrument". It is rather surprising that his music is so rarely performed and is not that well represented on disc, as Nobuaki Tanaka, director of the Franz Benda Society, rightly states in his liner-notes to the recording to be reviewed here. It has already been mentioned that he received a high salary from Frederick the Great, who was certainly not someone who was easily pleased. Tanaka writes at length about his stature and the way Frederick treated him. It seems that Benda was one of the few musicians, alongside Quantz and Graun, whom Frederick completely trusted and highly appreciated. He was even allowed to correct Frederick's own compositions.

A token of the appreciation of Benda's works is their dissemination across Europe. Copies of his music have been found in libraries and archives in, among others, Berlin, Brussels and Washington D.C. In the source that the performers on the present disc have used, the sonatas include indications which give clues about the way Benda has performed them himself. The liner-notes don't explicitly say so, but I assume that the performers have taken them into account, especially the written-out ornamentation. That is the way Ludus Instrumentalis performed the four sonatas at the 2023 Festival Early Music Utrecht.

All four sonatas are in three movements, in three in the order slow-fast-fast, which was common in Berlin in the mid-18th century. The Sonata in G has four movements, which became the standard later; a pupil marked this work as "new". Benda's purpose was to write his sonatas "melodiously". The singing style was the hallmark of his sonatas, and the pieces included here witness that, in particular in the slow movements, but certainly not only there. That said, they are not devoid of dramatic elements; the presto which closes the Sonata in a minor is a good example. At the same time, these sonatas give a good idea of Benda's technical skills.

One of the reasons that Benda's sonatas are less often performed than one may expect is that there are problems with their authenticity. Tanaka mentions that the catalogue by Douglas A. Lee is not very reliable in that respect. "Because almost all of Benda's brothers were musicians, identifying the composer often caused problems, even for contemporaries. Franz Benda's renown also led to some improbable attributions to him; in Czech and Austrian sources there are violin pieces in which the composer was presumably identified according to unreliable documents." However, the sonatas performed here seem very likely to be from Benda's pen. The four pieces for unaccompanied violin are more problematic. Only one is attributed to Benda, the other three to his colleague Carl Höckh.

Höckh was born in Ebersdorf in Germany, and received his musical education there from the headmaster of the local school, who taught him to sing, but it is impossible to say how he learned to play the violin. At the age of fifteen, he went to Pruck (now Bruck an der Leita) in Austria to further his education. From 1725 to 1727 he did his military service, while playing horn in the wind band. He then met Benda, the viola and horn player Wilhelm Weidner and the flautist Georg Czarth. Together they travelled across Poland. After their arrival in Warsaw, Höckh entered the service of the starost (governor) Fabian Kazimierz Szaniawski, whereas Benda was given the position of Hofkapellmeister. When his employer died, Höckh found employment in the orchestra of the court at Zerbst, where Johann Friedrich Fasch was Kapellmeister. In 1734/35 Höckh was appointed concertmaster. He held this position until his death. He also acted as teacher; among his pupils were Friedrich Wilhelm Rust and Johann Wilhelm Hertel, who were to become composers of fame.

Pieces by Höckh are included in sources of Benda's works, and Tanaka points out that stylistically they are very much alike. However, the three pieces on this disc attributed to Höckh have a particular character: the capriccios are followed by a dance-like section in triple time seldom found in Benda's work. They are meant as educational stuff, but they have more to offer than technical challenges, and that justifies their inclusion here. They are nice intermezzos between the sonatas.

The live performances in Utrecht I mentioned above were very impressive, and when I left the concert I was hoping - and expecting - a recording to be made, and this is the result. Again I am impressed, first by the quality of Benda's sonatas. It is hard to believe that his oeuvre receives so little attention. It is time that this is going to change. This disc should help: the members of Ludus Instrumentalis are pretty much ideal advocates of Benda's music. These are technically immaculate performances, but - more importantly - the features of Benda's sonatas come off perfectly. This is music making of the highest order, and this results in a production that deserves its place in any CD collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

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