Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonatas: in C; in a; in F; in E; in C; in E?
Anton Steck (vn); Christian Rieger (hpd) (period instruments)
cpo 777 214 (69:13)
All six of Franz Benda’s violin sonatas included in Anton Steck’s collection for cpo fall into three movements, which accords with the pattern adopted by the Italians of the generations succeeding Arcangelo Corelli (including Corelli’s more stylistically adventurous students like Giovanni Battista Somis, but not Somis’s own student, Jean-Marie Leclair). In reviewing Ivan
Ženatý’s recording with cello and harpsichord support (Arta 22-2111, 18:6), I called attention to similarities between Benda’s sonatas and those of his roughly contemporary Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Tartini. But Benda’s sonatas seem to explore a wider range of musical expression and rely less on stock melodic and harmonic patterns; and whether or not they engage the violinist’s abilities in crabbed technical problems, they sound as though they require a great deal of left-hand facility and right-hand fluency. The rapid passages of the second, fast, movement of the Sonata in A Minor, for example, rush along in steady patterns. The tempo designations of that sonata might come directly from a work by Somis or Tartini:
tempo di menuet
(Somis had even experimented with drone effects in his sonatas, particularly their Tambourin finales—as had his student, Leclair), and the double-stopped melodies from the F-Major Sonata’s finale sound remarkably modern, if not in their technical demands, in their melodic contours. In some ways, though, Benda seems to have looked backward as well. Rieger plays complex harpsichord parts that sound more prepossessing than those in Tartini’s works, especially the later ones. (Tartini had even suggested that violinists discard the vestigial continuo parts in some of his sonatas.) Steck’s notes identify the sonatas, those in A Minor, in E Major, and the second one in C Major, as belonging to the set Benda published as his op. 1, and Steck notes their modest technical demands, citing his preference for a cantabile style of both playing and composing.
At nearly 15 minutes, the Sonata in E? takes almost one-and-a-half times as long as do the others. The loss of the E string and its sympathetic vibrations to the E?-Major tonality gives the Sonata a greater sense of solidity; it sounds in its opening movement, with its double-stopped passagework in the upper registers, as though it strained even Steck’s considerable technical abilities. But the slow movement displays the violinist’s tone to great advantage, and the final movement, a set of variations, turns out to be responsible for extending the Sonata’s length. While I deprecated the acerbity of Ženatý’s ensemble, which I attributed largely to the group itself rather than to the engineers, Steck and Rieger’s instruments produce consistently ingratiating textures, though there can be no mistaking Steck’s violin for a modern one. The engineers have captured them close up, yet at a distance that filters out unwanted extraneous noise.
In reviewing Ženatý’s performances, I suggested that they made “only an oblique case” for the composer, who, I thought, deserved “more eloquent representation.” In Steck, Benda seems to have found a champion who may not always play with the utmost elegance—nor with a quality of tone that those who prefer the sound of modern instruments might find consistently attractive (a bit hollow on the lower strings and reedy on the middle ones), but who nevertheless should make many listeners heed his case for Benda, argued jointly with Rieger’s industrious craftsmanship. Recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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