Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonatas: No. 10 in f; No. 14 in E?; No. 23 in c; No. 32 in E; No. 28 in F
Hans-Joachim Berg (vn); Naoko Akutagawa (hpd) (period instruments)
NAXOS 8.572307 (72:29)
Selections from Franz Benda’s elegant and expressive violin sonatas have appeared before (for example, in a collection by violinist Ivan Zenatý, cellist Pwre Hejny, and harpsichordist Jaroslav Túma on Arta F1022-2111,
18:6), but violinist Hans-Joachim Berg
and harpsichordist Naoko Akutagawa present them with original ornamentation, relying on an edition published by Mihoko Kimura from the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz (the sonatas chosen for the program, according to the booklet, bear the library’s numbers). They perform their selection on a violin by Sebastian Klotz, 1735, described as being unaltered, and a harpsichord by Henk van Schevikhoven in 1992 at A = 415.
Benda’s sonatas in this collection fall into three movements, and while Glenn Wilson’s notes suggest that Benda had experimented more widely than the fast-slow-fast model, Giovanni Battista Somis and Giuseppe Tartini, like Benda, had already written sonatas in the moderate-fast-fast pattern. The program opens with a minor-key sonata, No. 10, and the dark key (F Minor) and the lower pitch create in this reading a sense of brooding that even the Presto finale, with its brilliant ornamentation, doesn’t entirely dispel. The Cantabile first movement of the 14th Sonata doesn’t entirely dispel the mood either, although the ensuing Allegro sounds a good deal more cheerful. The Presto swirls with rapid passagework as dazzling as that which might be found in the works of the somewhat older violinist-composers Jean-Marie Leclair and Pietro Locatelli, although Benda comes from another branch of the violinistic family tree, having studied with Johann Gottlieb Graun, who, in turn, had been a pupil of Tartini and Johann Georg Pisendel.
The close up recorded sound reveals Berg’s slightly astringent tone, husky in the lower registers; but, perhaps even more noticeably, he employs portamentos in shifting to higher positions that would sound ungainly even by comparison to the standards of the “golden age,” in which such shifts, although perhaps slower and more pronounced than might now be acceptable, never sounded downright awkward, although outside comparatively Spartan current canons of taste. To what extent should period practitioners go to achieve authenticity? Should they do, with less elegance than we now can, what Baroque violinists could do only with difficulty? Would Baroque violinists play ungainly shifts if they could do otherwise or if, by peering into the future, discovered a higher standard?
Benda’s rhetoric in the 23rd Sonata sounds very elegant, especially in the second movement, an Allegro moderato that unfolds with serene grace in Berg’s reading. The finale includes some rhythmic double-stops (Wilson identifies an Italian violinist and an itinerant fiddler as Benda’s influences). Wilson also suggests that Benda’s sonatas come at the end of the continuo era, before what had been figured-bass accompaniments simply transformed themselves into written-out parts for harpsichord. Akutagawa plays these simply, although some may find that her readings sound foursquare (with a violin part so well decorated, however, it may not be inappropriate for the harpsichordist to play the straight man). The 32nd Sonata sounds brighter, perhaps because of the key (E Major), and perhaps because of the plentiful double-stops. In the first movement, Akutagawa graces the harpsichord part with cascading figuration, which contributes a great deal to the atmosphere’s ebullience. The slow movement, Adagio ò Arioso, incorporates many gracious and sensitive devices (including a very brief cadenza at the end), of which Berg’s performance takes expressive advantage. The final sonata on the program, No. 28 in F Major, makes a somewhat less brilliant impression in its first movement, though in the duo’s reading it offers moments that mingle charm and sentiment.
Those who wish to acquaint themselves with Benda’s
should find in Berg’s and Akutagawa’s reconstructions an attempt to recapture their original sound and manner. Violinists and collectors of violin music should find Benda’s sonatas in these performances an entrée into a repertoire hitherto not frequently explored, in an enterprise that poses questions about the rules of the quest for the historical composer (Albert Schweitzer reported a sort of dead end in a similarly motivated religious quest). Recommended, however, across the board, with insignificant caveats.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
In the 18th century Bohemia was a breeding place of composers and performing musicians. They turned up everywhere in Europe, acting as virtuosos on their instruments and entering the service of royalty and aristocracy. Among them were members of the Benda family. There were five of them, all born in Staré Benátky. The four sons and one daughter of Jan Jiri Benda, linen weaver and village musician, all became professional musicians. Franz Benda, the eldest, became a violinist, like the second son, Johann Georg. The third, Georg Anton, was also educated as a violinist, but has become mainly known as a composer of theatrical music; he also wrote music for keyboard. Number four was Joseph, again a violinist, and the last was Anna Franziska, who became a singer. There was also a next generation of Bendas: two of Franz's sons became violinists, two daughters were active as singers. Joseph also had a son who became a violinist.
As a child Franz sang in St Nicholas Church in Prague, later in the court chapel in Dresden. When his voice broke he concentrated on violin playing, studying the music of Vivaldi. He found his first jobs in various aristocratic households in Vienna, but after a while moved to Warsaw, where he worked for more than two years. It was here that his reputation started to rise, and in 1733 he entered the service of the then Crown Prince of Prussia, Frederick, who resided in Ruppin. In 1736 he moved with Frederick to Rheinsberg and in 1740 to Berlin, when Frederick succeeded his father as King of Prussia. His stature was reflected by his salary; only the two Graun brothers were higher paid. Benda was particularly praised for his expressive playing of the violin. Charles Burney wrote that he had "acquired a great reputation in his profession, not only by his expressive manner of playing the violin, but by his graceful and affecting compositions for that instrument". He was also sought after as a teacher. Among his pupils was Johann Peter Salomon, the German violinist who is mainly known as an impresario working in London, and responsible for Haydn's visits to England.
Until recently not much attention had been paid to Benda's violin compositions. In 2006 the German violinst Anton Steck devoted a complete disc to his sonatas which was released by CPO. In the review I wrote that it was the first of its kind. Afterwards I found a disc in my collection which had appeared in 1999 on the Czech label Matous, with performances by the Czech Baroque Trio. This Naxos disc is special in that it presents five sonatas from a large manuscript of 34 which contain written-out ornamentation by the composer. That makes this collection, which is preserved in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek, a unique source which gives insight into Benda's own performance practice.
There is no doubt that Benda was a great virtuoso, and that these sonatas are testimonies to that. But this virtuosity is not demonstrative. Some movements are full of ornaments, but they work quite naturally. It is also indicative of Benda's style that most tempo indications suggest moderation. These five sonatas are all in three movements but are structured differently. The sonatas 10, 14 and 23 all follow the then fashionable order of slow - fast - fast. The second movement was mostly moderately fast, whereas the last had the character of a show-stopper. That is a bit different in Benda's sonatas, where the last movement isn't that much different from the second. The
Sonata No. 23 begins with an adagio which is followed by an
allegro moderato and closes with an
allegro non molto. The sonatas 28 and 32 follow the model of Vivaldi: fast - slow - fast which would also become the standard in the classical era. Again the tempo indications reflect Benda's apparent preference for moderation. The last movement of the
Sonata No. 32 is an
allegro moderato e cantabile, whereas the
Sonata No. 28 begins with
un poco allegro.
Cantabile can be considered the trademark of Benda's playing and composing as the quotation from Burney indicates. The German composer and writer Johann Friedrich Reichardt wrote that as a performer Benda could "overwhelm and command the heart of his audience". There is a clear similarity between Benda's aesthetic preferences and those of his Italian contemporary Giuseppe Tartini. He was also a virtuoso, but criticised Vivaldi for his use of virtuosity as an aim in itself. One could consider Benda and Tartini as the instrumental counterparts of Christoph Willibald Gluck who aimed at naturalness in opera.
cantabile style of playing is well reflected in these performances by Hans-Joachim Berg. He is a pupil of Gottfried von der Goltz and Petra Müllejans, both leaders of the Freiburger Barockorchester. He has also played and recorded with this orchestra, but this is his first solo recording. And a very fine one it is. If you want to hear some spectacular violin playing as in sonatas by Vivaldi, Geminiani or Veracini, you will be disappointed. As i have said, the virtuosity is not demonstrative. There are some movements with double-stopping, but that doesn't play an important role in these sonatas. Only the closing
allegretto of the
Sonata No. 28 includes extended passages with double-stopping. These sonatas are dominated by lyricism. One of the most beautiful movements is the
adagio è arioso from the
Sonata No. 32. The tempi are mostly moderate; in some cases I could imagine a swifter tempo, for instance the opening
andante from the
Sonata No. 10.
According to the track-list these are all world premiere recordings. That is not quite true as the last sonata of the programme was also recorded by Anton Steck and the Czech Baroque Trio on the discs I referred to before. Both take swifter tempi and in particular Anton Steck is more inclined to demonstrate the virtuosic aspects of Benda's sonatas. Which approach is closer to Benda's own style of playing is a matter of speculation. I enjoy all three discs. Naoko Akutagawa gives good support at the harpsichord, again not trying to do too much. I especially like the way she deals with the drum basses, for instance in the opening
allegro from the
Sonata No. 32.
Those who prefer violinistic fireworks should look elsewhere; this is a disc for connoisseurs.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International
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