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Georg Anton BENDA (1722 - 1795): "Sonatas / Sonatinas / Songs"

Ivana Bilej Brouková, sopranoa; Helena Zemanová, violinb; Hana Flekovác, Marek Stryncld, cello; Edita Keglerová, harpsichorde

rec: May 2013 & July 2014, Jicín Chateau
Supraphon - SU 4184-2 (© 2015) (75'48")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/Cz; lyrics - translations: E/F/Cz
Cover & track-list
Scores Vols. 2 & 3

Du, kleine, Blondineace [3]; Heraklit, gleich stumpfen Greisenade [4]; Hüpft, ihr wollenreichen Herdenade [3]; Ich liebte nur Ismenenade [4]; Mein Geliebter hat versprochenade [3]; Mit Armen, den des Fiebers Kraftade [2]; Mit Lauretten, seiner Freudeae [2]; Romanze: Ein Mädchen, das auf Ehre hieltace [3]; Sonata in c minore [3]; Sonata in Fe [3]; Sonata in Fe [4]; Sonata in Gbe [1]; Sonatina in Ce [3]; Sonatina in De [3]; Sonatina in Fe [3]; Sonatina in g minore [2]; Sonatina in B flate [3]

Sources: Sammlung vermischter Clavier- und Gesangstücke für geübte und ungeübte Spieler, [1] vol. 2, 1781; [2] vol. 3, c1782; [3] vol. 4, c1784; [4] vol. 5, c1785

In the second half of the 17th century and even more so in the 18th Bohemia was a cradle of musicians. They swarmed around Europe and acted as travelling virtuosos, music teachers and composers of music in all genres of their time. Among them were the Benda brothers who played a major role in German music life in the third quarter of the 18th century.

Frantisek (Franz) and Jiri Antonin (Georg Anton) were two of the six surviving children of Jan Jiri, a linen weaver and village musician. Three other children also became musicians: Jan Jiri (Johann Georg) junior and Joseph acted as violinists and Anna Frantiska (Anna Franziska) as a singer. Georg was the third, and he attended the Piarist high school in Kosmonosy (Bohemia) and from 1739 to 1742 went to the Jesuit college in Jicín. In 1742 he emigrated with his parents and sister to Prussia, where he joined his brothers as a violinist in the court orchestra. But in 1750 Georg left the court and became Kapellmeister to Duke Frederick III of Saxe-Gotha. Here he composed sacred cantatas, instrumental music and was one of the earliest contributors to two new genres, the Singspiel and the melodrama. He was an intellectual who spoke several languages and was strongly interested in politics and philosophy.

The melodrama is considered his main contribution to music history. He was not the inventor of the genre, but his two best-known melodramas,Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea, both from 1775, were the first major specimens. It caused great interest from colleagues, among them the young Mozart, as is exposed in a letter from 1778. In that same year he resigned as Kapellmeister in Gotha, and started to travel around. His hope of another engagement didn't materialize. He retired and concentrated on sorting out his compositions and preparing them for publication. This resulted in six volumes with keyboard pieces, chamber music and songs. The title indicates that he had both professional musicians and amateurs in mind.

The fame he earned with his music for the stage certainly contributed to the success of the collections of music from which the pieces on the present disc are taken. It offers a cross section of the series, and includes sonatas and sonatinas for keyboard, a sonata for keyboard and violin and some songs. The keyboard sonatas are the most substantial part of the programme. These are technically the most demanding and probably written for professionals and highly-skilled amateurs. Stylistically there is a clear affinity between these sonatas and the keyboard works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. That comes especially to the fore in the two Sonatas in F from the 4th and 5th volumes respectively. In the former we find the contrasts between various sections within a movement which we know from CPE Bach. The opening movement has the tempo indication allegro assai moderato - allegro and there the dominant fast tempo is time and again interrupted by slower episodes. There are also some unexpected pauses; the ending is quite surprising as well. I assume that these sonatas also include various dynamic indications which are realised here by shifting manuals. In comparison with these two sonatas the Sonata in c minor is more 'conventional', as it were. The sonatinas are of a different nature. These are miniatures, technically far more accessible to amateurs and of a rather diverting nature. It certainly wouldn't be a good idea to record a whole series of them in succession.

The songs also belong to the lighter stuff. In the 17th century various composers had written songs for solo voice and accompaniment. But at the end of the century the genre of the solo song declined. On the one hand it was overshadowed by the increasingly popular cantata, the result of the influence of Italian music. On the other hand composers started to publish opera arias as solo songs, which were too difficult for non-professional singers to sing. In the first decades of the 18th century composers even looked down on the solo song. But in the 1730s things started to change. The ideal of music being 'simple' and 'natural' constituted the breeding ground for the solo song. Among the first serious attempts to revitalize the genre are the Vier und zwanzig, theils ernsthaften, theils scherzenden, Oden which Telemann published in 1741. Around the middle of the century poets and composers became increasingly interested in the genre. Musicologists have ranked them among the so-called 'First Berlin School', followed - in 1770 - by the 'Second Berlin School'. However, there were also composers in other parts of the country who contributed to a genre which was to become very popular in the last quarter of the century. In his liner-notes Václav Kapsa connects Benda's songs to those "by the Berlin composers of the time". They certainly meet the requirements of being 'simple' and 'natural'. The various forms show that they belong to the period of transition from the song with basso continuo to the song with a written-out keyboard part. Both forms are represented here. Some are strophic, others are through-composed; these forms would continue to coexist well into the 19th century.

The coexistence of various styles and forms is a feature of the oeuvre of many composers from the third quarter of the 18th century anyway. The Sonata in G for keyboard and violin by Benda is a good example. At the time many sonatas for keyboard and a melody instrument - in particular transverse flute or violin - were written in which the latter largely followed the right hand of the keyboard. In many cases such a part was added with the addition ad libitum which means that it could be omitted. That is not the case here. The violin and the right hand of the keyboard have independent parts, although there are many episodes in parallel movement as was very common in chamber music of the time.

One of the virtues of this disc is the mixture of pieces of a different character and technical level. It would not be advisable to fill a whole disc with the kind of songs included here. That is not because they are not good, but because this is highly diverting stuff which needs to be taken in small doses. It has to be said that my reservation is partly due to the performance. Ivana Bilej Brouková has a very nice voice and I greatly enjoyed her singing. She is certainly right in not trying to do too much and giving these songs too much weight. However, I feel she could have done more with some of them, especially the more or less humorous ones. Romanze, for instance, receives a too straight-faced performance. I also noted several differences in the text which Ms Brouková sings and the lyrics in the booklet. As I don't have access to the scores I can't check whether that is due to slips of the tongue or to printing errors.

Edita Keglerová plays the keyboard pieces very well. She opted for the harpsichord; a copy of a Taskin is probably not the most appropriate. However, the harpsichord as such is certainly justifiable as it was still very much in vogue at the time Benda's collections were published. In his liner-notes Kapsa states that Benda, like CPE Bach, preferred the clavichord. I just wonder whether that would have been a better choice, also in regard to the dynamic contrasts. It could have even be played in the songs. Not long ago I reviewed a disc with sacred songs by CPE Bach in which the singer was supported by a clavichord. That was a most interesting experience, and it underlines the intimate character of these songs. Benda's secular songs were also intended for domestic performance, and the combination of voice and clavichord could be very interesting here.

All in all, this is a delightful disc. I hope that these interesting collections of Benda's music will be further explored in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Ivana Bilej Brouková
Edita Keglerová
Marek Stryncl

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