Frederick II of Prussia (1712 - 1786) had a great interest in
intellectual and artistic matters and a special liking for music.
He was taught to play the flute by Johann Joachim Quantz, to
the great dissatisfaction of his father. When Frederick William
I took drastic action Frederick only became more resolute to
follow his heart. At his court in Ruppin he started to assemble
musicians, and appointed Carl Heinrich Graun as general court
musician in 1735. The next year he moved to Rheinsberg, accompanied
by musicians of fame, like Graun and his brother Johann Gottlieb,
the brothers Franz and Georg Anton Benda, Christoph Schaffrath
and Johann Gottlieb Janitsch.
In 1740 he succeeded his father as King of Prussia, and immediately
started to extend his court chapel. Apart from the musicians
mentioned above he attracted Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Christoph
Nichelmann, his former flute teacher Quantz - who until 1741
was at the service of the court in Dresden - and Johann Friedrich
Agricola. The fact that these musicians and composers were all
connected to Frederick's court doesn't necessarily imply their
music was played there. It is a well-established fact that Frederick's
musical taste was rather conservative, and there is no doubt
that many of the compositions of members of his chapel would
not find his approval. These concertos recorded by Il Gardellino
are good examples of such compositions.
Franz and Johann Georg Benda were of Bohemian origin, and they
are just two of the many musicians engaged in a diaspora all
over Europe both as performers and composers. They were the sons
of Jan Jiri Benda, a linen weaver and village musician. Five
of his six surviving children became musicians: Franz, Johann
Georg, Georg Anton, Joseph and Anna Franziska.
Franz was the eldest, born in 1709, and was a very good singer
in his youth, working in Prague and the court chapel in Dresden.
After his voice broke he concentrated on playing the violin.
He at first worked for a while in Vienna and then in Warsaw.
In 1733 he was engaged as court violinist by Frederick. The rest
of his life he stayed at his service, ending his career as Konzertmeister
Benda was held in high esteem, as quotations from Charles Burney
and Johann Friedrich Reichardt testify. The former wrote that
he "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". And Reichardt
stated that Benda was able to "overwhelm and command the
heart of his audience".
The graceful character of his compositions comes well to the
fore in his violin sonatas, but also in his solo concertos. It
is not known for sure how many violin concertos Benda wrote,
but 15 have survived whose authenticity is established. Three
which have been attributed to him are probably written by someone
else. The Concerto in E flat is a perfect example of the 'cantabile'
style for which he was so famous as a performer. It is not too
far-fetched to assume that his own past experiences as a singer
had everything to do with his preference for a 'singing' propensity.
The slow movement contains some very spicy harmonies.
The Flute Concerto in e minor is an example of a composition
that is very unlikely ever to have found the approval of Frederick
the Great. Benda and other composers at the court, like Carl
Philipp Emanuel Bach, also wrote compositions for private performances
in the salons of the bourgeoisie in Berlin. In fact, this concerto
has much in common with the style of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
In particular the nervousness of the fast movements is reminiscent
of Bach's solo concertos and string symphonies. The solo part
is quite different, though, much quieter and much more elegant
- not very different from the solo part of the violin concerto.
In this way Benda creates a kind of dialogue between the solo
and the tutti. In the slow movement the strings play con sordino
a technique characteristic of the style of the Empfindsamkeit
The second son of Jan Jiri, Johann Georg (1713 - 1752), became
a member of Frederick's chapel too, first as viola player, then
as violinist. He was joined by Georg Anton in 1742, who also
played as a violinist in the chapel. But in 1750 Georg left the
court and became Kapellmeister
to Duke Frederick III of
Saxe-Gotha. There he composed sacred cantatas, instrumental music
and was one of the earliest contributors to two new genres, the Singspiel
the melodrama. He was an intellectual who spoke several languages
and was strongly interested in politics and philosophy.
The two keyboard concertos are dated in the 1770s and 1780s.
Like Franz Benda's Flute Concerto in e minor they are strongly
reminiscent of Carl Philipp Emanuel's keyboard concertos. Here
the harpsichord does not establish a contrast with the string
parts, but joins them in that nervous style which is usually
called Sturm und Drang
. Sudden pauses and dynamic outbursts
regularly appear in these concertos. The slow movements bear
the traits of the Empfindsamkeit
, with the strings playing con
Because of their irregular character the solo parts sometimes
sound like improvisations. It seems that Shalev Ad-El cannot
resist adding a little extra by hesitating at some moments, slowing
down and using a modicum of rubato now and then. It makes these
concertos all the more exciting, and the ensemble follows him
closely. The orchestral parts in Franz Benda's two concertos
are also given splendid performances. Jan De Winne is an experienced
player of the transverse flute, and delivers the solo part elegantly,
with excellent phrasing and articulation. Ryo Terakado's duty
is to play the solo part in the violin concerto in the singing
style for which Benda was famous. He does this with real aplomb
such that one perhaps gains a sense of the playing that so impressed
Benda's contemporaries. Some of them were even moved to tears
when they heard him playing. In every concerto cadenzas are added
- all in good taste without overstepping the mark.
The oeuvre of the Benda brothers is as yet little explored. Franz's
flute concertos have been recorded before, but his violin concertos
are still pretty much unknown territory. Georg's keyboard concertos
seem to have enjoyed some popularity in recent years, as several
recordings have been released. This disc gives a very fine introduction
to the music of these highly gifted brothers. Their compositions
are served very well by Il Gardellino.
Johan van Veen