František BENDA (1709-1786)
Violin Concerto in C major, Lee II-1 (c.1739) [17:30]
Violin Concerto in B flat major, Lee II-18 (c.1740) [15:24]
Violin Concerto in D major, Lee II-16 (c.1740) [18:48]
Violin Concerto in A minor, Lee II-16 [20:19]
Prague Philharmonia/Ivan Ženatý (violin)
rec. May 2011, and January 2012, Martínek Studio, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU 4064-2 [72:26]

Benda was one of the most illustrious, possibly the single most illustrious, Czech violinist of the eighteenth century. Yet fewer than twenty concertos of his concertos for his own instrument have survived. In this disc we hear four of them in performances from Ivan Ženatý who plays a modern set up violin with musicians drawn from the Prague Philharmonia, comprised 2-1-1-1 and harpsichord - baroque sized (but modern instrument). The intimate nature of the music making suits the performances, and indeed the nature of the compositions themselves. These are pleasantly old-fashioned, more akin to Vivaldi than an Italian contemporary like Tartini - akin to Vivaldi, yes, in a sense, but rather lacking the flair, panache, colour and hubristic danger of Vivaldi.
Which is not to suggest that they are not worthy or exciting in their own way. The C major has a forceful first movement, but the slow movement remains in the memory more for its character than for any true melodic distinction. The finale is probably the finest of the three movements, fizzing with energy and clever contrasts between ritornellos and the vivid, slashing solo violin. Here, for sure, one feels the impress of Vivaldi’s spirit. Here, too, one can tentatively gauge just what sort of virtuoso Benda must have been.
The confident, fluent, Italianate lyricism that floods the B flat major is aerial in its finesse, showy in places, whilst not achieving much true distinction. Someone else added extraneous parts to the D major - let’s name him; Johann Georg Pisendel, who was a friend, and led the Dresden court orchestra which, because it was larger than the orchestra for which Benda wrote, needed something ‘extra’ to play. In Supraphon’s recording we scrub off Pisendel’s horn parts and go back to the bare, string accompaniment. Finally there is the later A minor Concerto, a rather more ‘affetuoso’ work with a melancholy cadenza (Ženatý’s own). Here we find Benda being just a touch too liberal with his expressive caesurae, just a little artificial and over gallant. The finale, though, is rollicking good fun.
Ženatý plays in an accomplished way throughout. He’s not the first person among Czech fiddlers that I’d think of for this repertoire, but he acquits himself with honour. He’s one of the more bafflingly inconsistent performers around on disc, so this is good news.
Benda’s violin music is highly accomplished and highly polished. I can’t say it’s desperately original, nor is it always melodically special, but it’s well presented here.
Jonathan Woolf  

Highly accomplished and highly polished and well presented here.