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Franz BENDA (1709 - 1786): "Violin Sonatas (with original ornamentation)"

Hans-Joachim Berg, violin; Naoko Akutagawa, harpsichord

rec: March 26 - 28, 2010, Rügheim, Schuttbau
Naxos - 8.572307 (© 2011) (72'29")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & tracklist

Sonata No 10 in f minor (L III,73); Sonata No 14 in E flat (L III,41); Sonata No 23 in c minor (L III,9); Sonata No 28 in F (L III,63); Sonata No 32 in E (L III,50)

In the 18th century Bohemia was a breeding place of composers and performing musicians. They turned up everywhere in Europe, acting as virtuosos on their instruments and entering the service of royalty and aristocracy. Among them were members of the Benda family. There were five of them, all born in Staré Benátky. The four sons and one daughter of Jan Jiri Benda, linen weaver and village musician, all became professional musicians. Franz Benda, the eldest, became a violinist, like the second son, Johann Georg. The third, Georg Anton, was also educated as a violinist, but has become mainly known as a composer of theatrical music; he also wrote music for keyboard. Number four was Joseph, again a violinist, and the last was Anna Franziska, who became a singer. There was also a next generation of Bendas: two of Franz's sons became violinists, two daughters were active as singers. Joseph also had a son who became a violinist.

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. Benda was particularly praised for his expressive playing on the violin. Charles Burney wrote that he 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". He was also sought after as a teacher. Among his pupils was Johann Peter Salomon, the German violinist who is mainly known as an impresario working in London, and responsible for Haydn's visits to England.

Until recently not much attention had been paid to Benda's compositions for the violin. In 2006 the German violinist Anton Steck devoted a complete disc to his sonatas. In the review I wrote that it was the first of its kind. Afterwards I found a disc in my collection which had appeared in 1999 on the Czech label Matous, with performances by the Czech Baroque Trio. This Naxos disc is special in that it presents five sonatas from a large manuscript of 34 which contain written-out ornamentation by the composer. That makes this collection, which is preserved in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek, a unique source which gives insight in Benda's own performance practice.

There is no doubt that Benda was a great virtuoso, and that these sonatas are testimonies of that. But this virtuosity is not demonstrative. Some movements are full of ornaments, but they work quite naturally. It is also indicative of Benda's style that most tempo indications suggest moderation. These five sonatas are all in three movements but are structured differently. The sonatas 10, 14 and 23 all follow the then fashionable order of slow - fast - fast. The second movement was mostly moderately fast, whereas the last had the character of a show-stopper. That is a bit different in Benda's sonatas, where the last movement doesn't diverge that much from the second. The Sonata No 23 in c minor (L III,9) begins with an adagio which is followed by an allegro moderato and closes with an allegro non molto. The sonatas 28 and 32 follow the model of Vivaldi: fast - slow - fast which would also become the standard in the classical era. Again the tempo indications reflect Benda's apparent preference for moderation. The last movement of the Sonata No 32 in E (L III,50) is an allegro moderato e cantabile, whereas the Sonata No 28 in F (L III,63) begins with un poco allegro.

Cantabile can be considered the trademark of Benda's playing and composing as the quotation from Burney indicates. The German composer and writer Johann Friedrich Reichardt wrote that as a performer Benda could "overwhelm and command the heart of his audience". There is a clear similarity between Benda's aesthetic preferences and those of his Italian contemporary Giuseppe Tartini. He was also a virtuoso, but criticised Vivaldi for his use of virtuosity as an aim in itself. One could consider Benda and Tartini as the instrumental counterparts of Christoph Willibald Gluck who aimed at naturalness in opera.

The cantabile style of playing is well reflected in these performances by Hans-Joachim Berg. He is a pupil of Gottfried von der Goltz and Petra Müllejans, both leaders of the Freiburger Barockorchester. He has also played and recorded with this orchestra, but this is his first solo recording. And a very fine one it is. If you want to hear some spectacular violin playing as in sonatas by Vivaldi, Geminiani or Veracini, you will be disappointed. As I have written, the virtuosity is not demonstrative. There are some movements with double stopping, but that doesn't play an important role in these sonatas. Only the closing allegretto of the Sonata No 28 includes extended passages with double stopping. These sonatas are dominated by lyricism. One of the most beautiful movements is the adagio è arioso from the Sonata No 32. The tempi are mostly moderate; in some cases I could imagine a swifter tempo, for instance the opening andante from the Sonata No 10 in f minor (L III,73).

According to the track-list these are all world premiere recordings. That is not quite true as the Sonata No 28 was also recorded by Anton Steck and the Czech Baroque Trio on the discs I referred to before. Both take swifter tempi and in particular Anton Steck is more inclined to demonstrate the virtuosic aspects of Benda's sonatas. Which approach is closer to Benda's own style of playing is a matter of speculation. I enjoy all three discs. Naoko Akutagawa gives good support at the harpsichord, again not trying to do too much. I especially like the way she deals with the drum basses, for instance in the opening allegro from the Sonata No 32.

Those who prefer violinistic fireworks should look elsewhere; this is a disc for connoisseurs.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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Hans-Joachim Berg

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