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Jirí Antonín BENDA (1722-1795)
Ariadne auf Naxos (1775)
Jitka Molavcová, Alfred Strevcek (speakers)
Czech Chamber Philharmonic orchestra/Jaroslav Krcek
Recorded 2000, Prague
ARCO DIVA UP 0066-2 231 [38.39] **


Benda is among the most interesting composers of the second half of the 18th century, an eclectic figure who boldly risked security in the attempt to pursue his own artistic vision. Like his younger contemporary, Mozart, this brought him some successes but more frequently there were failures and frustrations.

Benda was a member of a famous family of musicians. He and his father Jan Jirí travelled north to Berlin in search of fame and fortune. Benda’s first important appointment was as kapellmeister to Duke Friedrich III of Saxe-Gotha, whose court musical life was sufficiently sophisticated to allow him the opportunity for musical experimentation.

Among the enthusiasms thus engendered was the development of the genre known as the ‘melodrama’, linking music of expressive feeling to the declamation of poetic texts. It was in this context that Benda composed the music of his melodrama Ariadne auf Naxos for Charlotte Brandes, the wife of the German writer Johann Christian Brandes.

This, his first melodrama, uses the device of alternating the passages of speech and music. Only occasionally, at moments of high tension such as the release of Ariadne’s anxiety, does Benda choose to link the music and the voice together. The result is therefore the more compelling, and the music itself has abundant attractions, not least in the effective opening paragraph that sets the tone.

This performance is certainly full of interesting and sensitive responses to Benda’s score. The orchestral playing is of a good standard and the pacing and phrasing of the conductor are exemplary. What is less convincing is the whole presentation of the product. There is the usual multi-language booklet, but it fails to tell us anything of the details of the story-line, nor are texts and translations included. Therefore the listener who is not familiar with the original language will struggle to avoid confusion.

Worse than this, Ariadne auf Naxos is the only piece included, and runs for less than forty minutes: poor value indeed. There are no separate cue-points, so finding one’s way around the piece and understanding what is going on becomes practically impossible. Arco Diva may not be a major company, but is it right to make false economies in this way? As a result this must be regarded as a frustrating issue, a case of what might have been. For Benda is an interesting composer, and as a work of art his Ariadne auf Naxos remains worthy of our attention more than two centuries after it was written.

Terry Barfoot



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