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
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
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.
Masterwork Index: Pictures at an
~~ Schubert piano sonata