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Franz BENDA (1709-1786)
Violin Sonata in F minor [14:04]
Violin Sonata in E flat [15:19]
Violin Sonata in C minor [12:34]
Violin Sonata in E [16:00]
Violin Sonata in F [14:33]
Hans-Joachim Berg (violin)
Naoko Akutagawa (harpsichord)
rec. Schuttbau, Rügheim, Germany, 26-28 March 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572307 [72:29]

Experience Classicsonline

The Bohemian-German Bendas must be one of the most neglected musical families in history, considering the immense talent they possessed severally; 'they' being four composer brothers with three composer offspring, including a daughter, as well as several other instrumentalists and singers. None was more gifted than Franz (born FrantiŠek): music historian Charles Burney, though not known for infallible discernment, assessed Benda's violinistic skill accurately, referring to him as "a truly great genius."

Benda wrote music of exceptional attractiveness for his instrument, not especially served by Glen Wilson's description in the booklet notes as "the fluty warbling of the nightingale and a quicksilver bow, not the raucous cry of the eagle and interminable 'big sound'" - but at least potential buyers will know not to expect music of the stylus fantasticus trend, nor any of the experimental string-writing associated with Heinrich Biber or Attilio Ariosti, for example.

The five Sonatas performed here by the excellent Hans-Joachim Berg and Naoko Akutagawa on period instruments are all fairly alike in length and character, which is to say highly mellifluous, filigree, relaxed - here be no dragons. Benda aimed for, and achieved, a cantabile sound that eschewed virtuosity for its own sake. Modern audiences attuned to the violin music that followed in the 19th and 20th centuries may find Benda's tempos, dynamics and rhythms too even-keeled for their likening, but fans of the Baroque should not only understand what Benda was doing, but also derive great pleasure from these lyrical gems.

One of the selling-points of this disc - indicated on the cover - is that the Sonatas contain Benda's own written-out violin ornamentations, often substantial in nature. For the period this practice is a relative rarity - figured bass writing was still the norm - giving an important insight into Benda's own playing style.

Unfortunately Naxos have not indicated where these works occur in Douglas Lee's recent Thematic Catalogue of Benda's music. With 150-plus violin sonatas to the composer's name, these Sonatas are impossible to distinguish by key alone, and the numbering in the track-listing refers to the original ordering in the manuscript of 34 published works with written-out ornamentation now at the State Library in Berlin. A quick check on the Naxos website, however, and hey presto, there are those Lee numbers - an editing omission, it seems.

Aside from Berg and Akutagawa's impressively perceptive performances - even if the latter's abilities are not tested to anything like the same degree as Berg's - producer (Glen Wilson again) and engineer also merit an honourable mention: sound and general technical quality are very good. The CD booklet is adequate - although the notes open with a surprisingly disparaging view of the music of the decades where Baroque and Classical overlapped. Wilson later concludes with the daftly anachronistic remark - inane too, given that the same was true by definition of all new works - that "when the [18th century] listener was in the hands of an artist such as Franz Benda, the thrill of not knowing what was coming next must have been like listening to Art Tatum."

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