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Georg 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]
Howard Shelley (piano / conductor)
London Mozart Players
rec. September 2020 St John the Evangelist, London
The Classical Piano Concerto, Vol. 8
HYPERION CDA68361 [80:41]

Hyperion’s long-standing Romantic Piano Concerto Series currently numbers over eighty-three examples, since its inception in 1991. In 2014 it introduced a parallel series, dedicated to Piano Concertos of the Classical Period, and at the time I had great pleasure reviewing a CD of three piano concertos by Dussek, performed by that veritable champion of concertante underdogs, Howard Shelley, with the Ulster Orchestra. Seven years on, the series now encompasses eight CDs, the latest featuring four piano concertos by Georg Benda, again with pianist / conductor Howard Shelley, but with the London Mozart Players.

Georg Anton Benda – or to give him his Czech Christian names, Jiří Antonín Benda, was a Bohemian composer, violinist, and Kapellmeister, born into a family of notable musicians. He was nineteen when, in 1741, Frederick the Great bestowed upon him the position of second violinist in the chapel of Berlin. The following year Benda was summoned to Potsdam as a composer and arranger for his older brother Franz, who was also a renowned composer and violinist. Seven years later, Georg was appointed Kapellmeister to the Duke of Gotha, in Germany’s Thuringia, where he constantly honed his talent for composing, particularly religious music.

A stipend from the Duke allowed Benda to take a study trip to Italy in 1764, after which he returned to Gotha two years later, and devoted himself to composition. In 1778 he resigned his position, which allowed him to visit a number of major European cities, before finally living out his retirement in Köstritz.

One thing that has been consistent throughout the original Romantic Piano Concerto Series, and now the Classical version, is the erudition of the accompanying CD booklet, and the current release is certainly no exception. Jeremy Nicholas has the knack of making the notes really informative, and couched in terms that can relate to all listeners’ musical experience and knowledge. Benda isn’t a major player, compared with CPE Bach or Mozart, but Nicholas’s appraisal doesn’t seek to make him one, something that does occasionally happen from time to time, when the booklet is trying to garner support for a decidedly-lesser individual. Apart from Benda’s significant stage works, he also contributed a quantity of church music and vocal compositions, sixteen keyboard sonatas and sonatinas, a flute sonata, some thirty symphonies, ten harpsichord concertos and eleven violin concertos.

In terms of what to expect as a listener, Benda’s concertos lean towards CPE Bach, in that, unsurprisingly, they both showcase a particular trait of North German composers at the time: dramatic and often rapidly alternating moods, sometimes known as ‘Affekt’, or the ability of music to stir emotions. All of Benda’s concertos here follow the classical three-movement design – fast, slow, fast – seen in those by Mozart and Beethoven, and which then became the norm in the Romantic Period and beyond.

Despite the series’ title ‘Classical Piano Concertos’, the opening Allegro from Benda’s Piano Concerto in F minor, which begins the CD, has a considerably more Baroque feel to it, than the Classical world of Mozart and Haydn. Indeed this is probably one of the best examples of where Benda and CPE Bach come together from the stylistic point of view. There is the expected busy orchestral exposition before the soloist enters – no contemporary fortepiano here, but the full power of a Steinway Grand. As the booklet confirms, the soloist doesn’t immediately take up and develop the opening orchestral theme, which would normally be par for the course with Haydn and Mozart, but seems content with a staple diet of runs, arpeggios, and broken-chords, while there is more of a Vivaldi-like feel to the more pulsating string accompaniment. Unlike Mozart and Haydn, Benda’s orchestra is for strings only, which requires some adjustment in terms of the keyboard part. Originally the harpsichord or fortepiano would assume the usual role of the continuo – providing a chordal ‘backing’ to reinforce the harmony, but which would not be viable when using an iron-framed grand piano. There is a conventional development and recapitulation, together with a short cadenza for the soloist, something which Benda includes in some of his concertos.

If the first movement was pretty much bread-and-butter Baroque, then the Larghetto slow movement, with its use of muted strings, certainly looks forward, rather than backwards. We are virtually in a different world here, especially as far as the solo part is concerned, as it inhabits a far more freely-expressive and Romantic realm. In fact it would be true to say that, while the outer movements are pretty much standard, it is in the slow movements that Benda reveals a completely different side to his musical personality. The ensuing Allegro di molto, however, takes us straight back to the Baroque, a good-humoured, rapid finale with something of a moto perpetuo feel to it. Here the occasional prominence of triplets does add another weapon to the pianist’s technical arsenal, as well as heightening the tension overall.

Even though the first concerto was in the minor key, the opening of the Concerto in G minor presents a somewhat more restrained mood, something which the subtle alteration of the tempo marking – Allegro non troppo – would appear to confirm. There is a somewhat haughtier feel to Benda’s writing here, which the dotted-note rhythms strongly emphasize, as well as effectively contrasting with the increasing triplet passages. On the other hand, some of the keyboard patterns do look forward to those more frequently encountered in similar works by later composers like Dussek. Again – and despite the fact that a solo concerto, by its very name usually involves an element of display, Benda’s first-movement cadences is once more decidedly understated. Muted strings are again asked for in the Andante slow movement which, like its predecessor, is an outpouring of lyrical expression which Shelley and the outstanding strings of the London Mozart Players treat with such eminent respect and sensitivity. There is a charming little solo cadenza before the close. The bustling, energetic finale is marked presto, and the crisply-articulated playing from both parties couldn’t be more appropriate here.

The Concerto in G major presents a business-like, genial opening, but the frequent pulse-like bass-line again tends to look backwards, rather than forwards: perhaps, too, the thematic material isn’t quite as noteworthy as some that has gone before. The central slow movement (Andante) is effectively the heart of the work once again, even though the piano-writing is more heavily ornamented than earlier – a Baroque, rather than Classical trait. A short cadenza, however, still shows Benda at his most sensitive and expressive. Perhaps in keeping with this more formal work, Benda then eschews the rapid finale of the first two concertos, replacing it here with a suitably stately minuet.

The final Concerto in B minor, once more inhabits the sound-world of the first concerto in F minor, reverting to its jaunty, volatile mood, and, as Jeremy Nicholas maintains, while it might not come close to a Mozart concert, in terms of thematic invention and structural development, it still seems to have the edge on one by Haydn, certainly in so far as musical interest and pure entertainment-value are concerned.

Benda chooses the title Arioso for his slow movement, and does make the writing and texture seem reminiscent of Bach. But here I’m referring to the father, Johann Sebastian, rather than to his second-surviving son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. To the listener, this single movement is characteristically closer to J S Bach, than any of the other eleven, and perhaps no more so than to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F minor. But Benda still makes sure he rounds everything off with a highly-successful Allegro, once more mirroring the equally-exciting finale of his own F minor Concerto, which opened the CD. Towards the close of the movement, Benda makes effective use of rapid alternation between the hands, something that seemed to have been waiting in the wings, up until now, only to come to fruition here, almost by way of adding the ‘crowning glory’.

I would find it extremely difficult, if not somewhat churlish to find anything negative to say about any aspect of this new Hyperion CD. The performances are second to none, in both musical and stylistic integrity. Shelley has judged the dynamic balance between piano and orchestra with the utmost sensitivity, and, as mentioned earlier, the LMP strings provide the perfect support, especially with their finely- judged use of vibrato, which sounds absolutely spot on for the music’s chronology. Add to this the admirable fidelity of the recording, and the quality of the accompanying brochure, and, for my money at least, you have the perfect product. That it also affords some real insight into the evolution of the piano concerto genre during this period, is just one further reason to audition this highly-enjoyable new release yourself.

Philip R Buttall