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Georg Anton BENDA (1722-1795)
Piano Concerto in F minor [19:02]
Piano Concerto in G minor [19:43]
Piano Concerto in G major [22:28]
Piano Concerto in B minor [19:26]
London Mozart Players/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. September 2020, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London
HYPERION CDA68361 [80:41]

This is the eighth release in Hyperion’s Classical Piano Concerto strand; it’s devoted to that member of the ubiquitous family whose name has been Germanised as Georg Anton Benda, and it follows in the wake of issues dedicated to the likes of contemporary figures such as Johann Baptist Cramer (review), Jan Ladislav Dussek (review and review), Daniel Steibelt (review) and Leopold Kozeluch (review). Unlike its renowned elder Romantic Concerto sibling (presently up to Volume 83 and counting), the ‘Classical’ series to date has involved just a single soloist/conductor, Howard Shelley OBE, a performer whose photograph should accompany the entry for the word ‘indefatigable’ in any dictionary worthy of the name.

As a means of providing a detailed purview of those underappreciated composers who sought to adapt concerto form from the formulas and practices of the Age of Reason to fit the demands of the 19th century, the series is a noble, worthy undertaking. On the present issue Shelley proves, as ever, to be an evangelical, tireless, thoughtful and technically peerless guide. The London Mozart Players (a 19 strong string group in this case) provide warmly committed, effervescent accompaniment. The Hyperion sonics are characteristically vivid and authentic. What’s not to like?

On the surface, very little. Provided, that is, listeners are prepared to ration these four Benda concertos. If music be your medicine, in chronotherapeutic terms I respectfully suggest an initial dosage of no more than one per day. Either after breakfast or before bed. In the latter case accompanied by a little alcohol. Each of these works is eminently agreeable, worthy of one’s full attention, fit for casual analysis, easy to enjoy. It might be an improbable scenario, but if one were to encounter the novelty of a (Georg – as distinct from any number of his talented siblings or descendants) Benda keyboard concerto in the context of an orchestral concert one would surely welcome the rare opportunity to fully focus on this unfamiliar music, absorb any distinctive stylistic felicities on offer, admire any memorable themes and applaud enthusiastically at its conclusion. In all likelihood one would enjoy the experience, perhaps express regret that they don’t hear more live Benda over their interval snorter, return to the hall for the symphony before going home and forgetting all about it.

I have listened to all the discs in this series; to my mind both Cramer and Dussek are underrated masters (especially the latter), and one cannot imagine Shelley’s accounts of their concertos will ever be surpassed, Steibelt is a whimsical operator whose odd charms seduce in the moment but fade on revisiting. I enjoyed the more romantic leanings of the Clementi/Mozart fils disc (brief review) In one sense though this Benda disc most resembles the one Shelley devoted to Leopold Kozeluch; the latter’s formulae appear fresh on first hearing but to my ears at least, whilst that composer refined his blueprint over the arc of his career, accommodating ever more daring and ornate embellishment, Benda seemed to stick doggedly to the tried and tested. Whilst I have found the Kozeluch disc to be fully digestible at a single sitting, I cannot hand on heart make a similar claim for this issue.

For me the most appealing of these works is the G major example, placed third in the sequence, the only concerto not in a minor key. Yet whilst Jeremy Nicholas rather damns it with faint praise in his booklet note, and it lacks any palpable virtuosity or the slightest semblance of distinctiveness, it oozes charm, not least when it’s delivered with this level of refinement and panache. The opening Non tanto allegro conveys an amiable open-air grace and the central Andante even hints at an unexpected emotional depth, although Shelley characteristically lets the notes speak for themselves rather than wringing every ounce of feeling from the movement. Nicholas describes the Allegretto finale as a ‘polite minuet’; it’s difficult to argue but it’s certainly more than likeable when it’s performed with Shelley’s drive and instinctive appreciation of shape.

Elsewhere, perhaps the standout is the concluding B minor concerto, whose central Arioso is certainly the movement on this disc most inspired (rather than just influenced) by baroque models and whose concluding Allegro is illuminated by Shelley’s sparkling passagework. The F minor concerto which opens proceedings seems rather tame by comparison, notwithstanding a palpable joie de vivre in its outer movements which Shelley and the LMP exploit vigorously. The stylised Vivaldian chugging strings which dominate the introduction to its first movement Allegro seriously undermined this reviewer’s interest in this music, despite Shelley’s spirited, diamantine playing. Jeremy Nicholas notes the similarities between the shapes at the outset of the G minor work which follows and the opening of Mozart’s beloved D minor concerto K466, but this coincidence aside, what follows seems stubbornly unmemorable. The Andante is slightly more distinctive and even affecting; the spry Presto skitters by pleasantly enough – play it regularly and its main theme might just get under your skin.

Make no mistake all of the music on this generously filled disc is splendidly played and presented. Howard Shelley (who also contributed the idiomatic cadenzas to the three concertos which require them) could surely have done no more on Benda’s behalf. The London Mozart Players respond to his cajolings with style and precision. The recording projects warmth and great clarity.

In the final analysis, on this evidence Georg Anton Benda’s music can hardly be deemed unmissable. If Hyperion’s goal in this series is academic enquiry then it is impossible to quibble. But as far as individual listening is concerned, even for real aficionados of nascent concerto form, I would contend that playing this disc straight through will do this composer few favours. One can have far too much of a modest thing.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Philip R Buttall

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