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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor [10:36]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in B flat major, D960, Op. posth [36:27]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 [28:58]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca [6:58]
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Alma brasileira; Festa no sertão; Lenda do caboclo; Impressões seresteiras; Dança do indio branco [24:38]
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
8 Préludes for Piano [22:47]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [33:49]
Sebastian Benda (piano)
rec. locations not specified, 1961 (Schubert, Schumann); 1964 (Mussorgsky); 1979 (Beethoven, Liszt); 1981 (Villa Lobos); 1994 (Frank Martin), Archive Sebastian Benda
GENUIN GEN13283 [82:03 + 81:14]

Like me, this may be the first time you have come across the name of pianist Sebastian Benda (1926-2003). Born into a musical family, his father was a violin teacher and his mother a professional viola player and poet. His sister, Lola, was also a violinist. His Swiss father taught at the Hoch’sche Konservatorium in Frankfurt, but when the Nazis came to power in 1933, the family moved to Switzerland. Sebastian displayed musical precocity from a very young age, showing outstanding talent not only on the piano but also in composition. He could claim a good pedigree, being taught the piano for seven years by Edwin Fischer, and composition by the Swiss composer Frank Martin.
He eventually took up a career as a concert pianist and travelled around Europe. 1952 was a banner year for him. Visiting South America, he made the decision to settle in Brazil, staying there for twenty-nine years until 1981. After World War II, he became interested in contemporary music, and also had an attraction to South American composers, championing the piano works of Villa-Lobos, especially. From Brazil he made regular concert tours to Europe. When he finally decided to return to Europe in 1981, he spent the rest of his life teaching and mentoring. He had several children, all of whom are professional musicians.
CD 1 begins with the Beethoven Variations. Perhaps not as well-known as the Eroica set, they present the pianist with some formidable technical challenges. These Benda confronts head-on with both vitality and elan. I’ve always enjoyed Glenn Gould in this work, but Benda definitely gives him a run for his money. The Schubert Sonata is a reading of telling poetry and warmth. Like his teacher Edwin Fischer, Benda’s playing is never superficial, but gets under the surface of the music, penetrating to the core. The performance shows great musicality, with an innate understanding of the work’s architecture and structure. In the profound slow movement, he is able to bring to the fore the dark elemental forces in this deeply troubling music. In contrast, the Scherzo is bright and sparkling. In the Schumann pieces, Benda is sublime, vividly characterizing each piece. The Liszt Petrarch Sonnet is imbued with dramatic intent.
Benda has great affinity for the piano music of Heitor Villa-Lobos. The five piano works showcase a kaleidoscope of colour, rhythmic patterns, textures, sonorities and harmonies. There is plenty of contrast here. Festa no sertao is a rhythmic tour de force, with Benda displaying brilliant technique and flair. Lenda do caboclo, on the other hand, is quiet and reflective. Danca do indio branco is a panoply of rhythmic sequences and ostinato patterns. Martin’s eight Preludes for piano, run the full gamut of emotions, Benda characteristically allowing each piece to speak for itself. Benda concludes with a compelling performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a performance on which he lavishes a veritable Russian flavour.
Harvested from ‘Archive Sebastian Benda’, the recordings cover a span of thirty-three years. Audio quality is variable, with the earliest from 1961-64 (Schubert, Schumann and Mussorgsky) definitely showing their age, but sound acceptable, nevertheless. The remaining items date from 1979-94, and are furnished with clear, bright sound. 

The two CDs are housed in a handsome gatefold case, separated by a booklet. With each CD packing in just over 80 minutes of music, this adds up to a very generous package. The liner-notes provide a detailed biography, and also include an essay by the pianist - his ’Thoughts on Music’. An added bonus is a fine array of black and white photographs - snapshots of Benda’s life. All in all, a very desirable release.  

Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Pictures at an Exhibition ~~ Schubert piano sonata D960