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Jirí Antonín [Georg Anton] BENDA (1722 - 1795)
Sonata #1 in Bb (1757) [12.33]
Sonata #2 in G (1757) [11.01]
Sonata #3 in d (1757) [11.23]
Sonata #4 in F (1757) [11.20]
Sonata #5 in g (1757) [11.16]
Sonata #6 in D (1757) [8.19]
Antonio Piricone, Steinway grand piano
Notes in English. Photo of the artist.
Recorded at the Royal Academy, Aarhus, Denmark, 4 August 2002
distributed by DI music, www.dimusic.co.uk
CLASSICO CLASSCD 488 [65.52]


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Comparison recording:
Benda, 6 harpsichord sonatas, Tamara Franzová. Supraphon SU 3745-2 131
J.C.Mann, 6 harpsichord Sonatas, R. E. Simpson, harpsichord (2) Initium CD A001/2

I recently reviewed a CD of Benda keyboard sonatas played on the harpsichord by Tamara Franzová; that disk contains only two of these 1757 sonatas, so if you are a Benda completist you will need both disks.

Benda was born in N.E. Bohemia, and his father was a weaver and folk musician. Georg Benda got a good local education then emigrated with his family in 1742 to Berlin where he joined his older brother Frantisek in the violin section of the Prussian court opera orchestra. In 1750 he became Kapellmeister in Gotha where, in addition to the usual composing of all kinds of church and secular music for all combinations of instruments, he also achieved distinction as a writer of melodramas, two of which were in Mozart’s personal library. He failed to obtain an appointment in Vienna in 1778, and retired to study and compose in the town of Köstritz in Saxony.

These sonatas resemble the harpsichord sonatas of Johann Christoph Mann (1726 - 1782). Note that the two men were born within two years of each other. Both were active in the same general area of Europe, Mann a native Austrian based in Vienna but spending much time in Bohemia. Both wrote clearly in a North European pre-classical style in three movements, both wrote for harpsichord as well as fortepiano, and both men in their music set out to entertain, writing in a variety of forms and utilising songs (Mann uses a Scottish folk song in his fourth sonata), dances, and even operatic style settings. Benda is rather serious; Mann has more fun with his music. Although Benda was a friend of C.P.E. Bach, his music resembles that of the older man only slightly. C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard music tended to be stiff, conservative, and somewhat ungracious, whereas both Benda and Mann wrote very floridly and eloquently with bold harmonic colour. The interesting fact is that the pre-Classical period was more experimental harmonically than the Classical period and it is not until Chopin and Schumann that you see bolder harmonies.

And both composers are not well known to modern audiences, yet hearing their music, will teach you quite a bit about the evolution of German and Viennese Classical keyboard style. Some of these movements are almost pure Bach, some almost pure Mozart, and there are just hints of Beethoven and of Domenico Scarlatti here and there.

J.C. Mann used to be frequently confused with G.M. Monn (1717-1750), but Simpson’s research has established their separate identities, although they may have been brothers. Simpson uses an electronically sampled MIDI two manual harpsichord for his Mann recordings. All the artists use equal temperament tuning which most people will probably feel is appropriate, although I take exception to that and am convinced that unequal temperament was very much in use on keyboard instruments even after 1800. And all the artists use excellent judgement in ornamentation — neither too much nor too little. The performers must receive credit for this since, although I have not seen the scores to the Benda, this music is too early for the ornaments to have been written out for them in detail. Piricone receives clear, close recording, and he does not make use of octave doubling or register shifts into keyboard ranges not notated by the composer. Simpson’s recorded sound is very close, live, and dynamic, and he makes judicious use of the coupled 16 foot rank.

Antonio Piricone, who is equally renowned as a conductor and a harpsichordist, includes a thoughtful essay defending his decision to use a modern piano for this recording, however such pleading is hardly necessary. After only a few bars one is with him all the way. Piricone’s piano style is clear, graceful, and non-percussive when that is called for, yet he plays with drama and incisiveness when appropriate; we are not surprised to note that he has also recorded Bach on the piano to critical acclaim. With so many really fine recordings of Domenico Scarlatti on the grand piano (and perhaps a few real clunkers) the point should have been made well enough by now that the interpretative skill and musical intelligence count for more than the actual instrument at hand. And any reasonably aware musician must have realised that any keyboard music he wrote after 1750 would end up played on a pianoforte whether he intended that or not. Interestingly, Piricone plays some earlier works than Franzová, yet both instruments sound equally fitting to the music. Perhaps because we are as used to Scarlatti on the grand piano as on the harpsichord, Piricone’s use of the piano has the effect of emphasising the similarities in Benda’s style to that of Scarlatti, but those similarities are few. Benda was absolutely his own man.

There is no information either in the disk notes nor on the Piricone’s website listing his teachers; perhaps like Godowsky (and me) he is self taught. Simpson studied with Paul Nettl at Indiana University, played oboe in the orchestra under Wolfgang Stressemann, and then studied musicology at University of Vienna with Schenk. Initium CDs are available from http://www.initiumcd.com/

Paul Shoemaker

 

 



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