About this Recording
8.572307 - BENDA, F.: Violin Sonatas Nos. 10, 14, 23, 28 and 32 (H.-J. Berg, Akutagawa)

Franz (František) Benda (1709–1786)
Violin Sonatas with original ornamentation


As Europe recoiled from the endless wars of Louis XIV and the aesthetic tumults of the seventeenth century, she sought solace in the “dolce sereno” of the operas of Venice’s sunset, and the secluded intimacy of the French Regency style called “galant”. The Germans combined and translated these into their “mixed” style, later refined into Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity), one of various developments usually called, with admirable hindsight, “pre-classical”. The composers of the time had the good fortune of not knowing that Haydn and Mozart were looming over the horizon.

This turning inward produced a music difficult to grasp for ears raised on Beethoven, Wagner and Stravinsky. Moderate tempi and what Kenneth Clark called “the smile of reason” form a solid, conversational centre as a foil to the occasional presto or, more frequently, to adagios, which are, however, so lushly ornamented that the effect is one of garrulity rather than pathos. (But Benda is said to have brought tears to the eyes of his listeners with his adagio playing.)

The productions of the period are often mere baubles—exertion avoided at all costs, in an effort to be “pleasing”; but a few composers—C.P.E. Bach more than any other—managed to graft serious musical substance onto this precarious root. Franz Benda, for years a close associate of Bach’s at the court of Crown Prince and King Frederick the Great of Prussia, can be counted among the first rank of these exceptional masters. Born the son of a Bohemian weaver in 1709, he slowly rose through the ranks to a position of intimacy with the most formidable monarch of the eighteenth century, brought four musical siblings to Prussia, and sired one of the most famous composers of the next generation: Georg Benda was one of very few colleagues who got a good word from Mozart.

Charles Burney met Franz Benda in Berlin in 1772, and had higher praise for him than for any other violinist he met on his journeys through Europe, calling him “a truly great genius”, not belonging to any school. Benda himself tells us he was most indebted for youthful inspiration to an itinerant Jewish dance-fiddler named Löbel. This is how Benda chose (according to Burney) to praise an Italian colleague whom he had not seen in twenty years: “he had not forgot his fine tone, so remarkably clear, full and sweet; and added, that he should always retain a precise and pleasing idea of his graceful manner of playing”. Burney’s descriptions of other fine violinists linger on the same words—clear, sweet, graceful. Of Benda’s own playing he says, “His style is so truly cantabile, that scarce a passage can be found in his compositions, which it is not in the power of the human voice to sing.”

Nothing could be further removed from modern violin-playing. For Benda’s music, the fluty warbling of the nightingale and a quicksilver bow, not the raucous cry of the eagle and interminable “big sound”, are requisite. Instruments were sought to match. The “silvery voice” of the Tyrolean Jacob Stainer was the ideal for 150 years, even among Italians, until the glamorous, larger-toned products of Cremona supplanted it as concert halls bloated at the end of the eighteenth century. For this recording, Hans-Joachim Berg plays an instrument unaltered since it was built in 1735, just over the Karwendel mountains in Mittenwald, Bavaria, by the leading German builder Sebastian Klotz.

In mid-century Berlin, the art of ornamentation, ex tempore or only seemingly so, reached a pitch never seen before or since. All repeats and all slow movements had to be almost newly composed on the spot, if one were to please the demanding connoisseur. The results of such adventures, judging by the testimony of the best writers, were often lamentable; but when the listener was in the hands of an artist such as Franz Benda, the thrill of not knowing what was coming next must have been like listening to Art Tatum. He has left us what is probably the most extensive compendium of written-out examples of “improvisations” in all of music history: a manuscript in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek with 34 fully-ornamented sonatas for violin and continuo. Mihoko Kimura (Edition Offenburg) has edited a selection of these, and the artists gratefully acknowledge her permission to record five of them. In a very few instances, when a repeat seemed inordinately long, they have merged the two versions.

At this point in its chaotic history, the sonata had dropped the slow first movement of the Corellian fourmovement scheme, and settled in for a relatively long period of stability as a three-movement form. But composers quickly tired of imitating opera sinfonias, and began experimenting with layouts other than fast-slow-fast. Benda is particularly inventive in this respect. By the time of his death in 1786, the sonata for melody instrument with a bass line only—with or without chords filled in by a keyboard instrument, as they are here—was on its way out, in favour of wholly written-out piano parts. This certainly made life easier for accompanists, but resulted in the abandonment of the flexibility, musicianship and participatory fun of the continuo era.

Glen Wilson

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