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 of
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 violin
compositions. In 2006 the German violinst Anton Steck devoted
a complete disc to his sonatas which was released by CPO.
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 into Benda's own performance practice.
There is no doubt that Benda was a great virtuoso, and that
these sonatas are testimonies to 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
isn't that much different from the second. The Sonata No.
23 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
is an allegro moderato e cantabile, whereas the Sonata
No. 28 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 said, 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.
According to the track-list these are all world premiere recordings.
That is not quite true as the last sonata of the programme 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