Benda Violin Sonatas
Anton Steck has released a number of CDs with Christian Rieger featuring violin sonatas for CPO with snail shells on the covers. Perhaps one of the “newer” ones, when it comes to the composer’s place in musical history, is this one, featuring sonatas for violin and continuo by Franz Benda (1709-1786). A contemporary of Bach’s sons, Benda’s sonatas are caught somewhere between a baroque and classic aesthetic, in that curious space we sometimes call the “galant.” Each sonata is presented in a three movement format, all but one opening with slower movements. They tend to be on the melodic side, going into the higher reaches of the violin’s range, sometimes showcasing a virtuoso’s technique with complex passages. No doubt, we get a sense of Benda’s gifts as a violinist through his writing. Steck, as before, is up to the challenge, and supported in kind by Rieger on harpsichord.
As for an example of Steck’s own virtuosity, we need go no further than the fifth track, a Vivace from an A minor sonata played at an endlessly brisk pace. He makes the fast string of notes seem like child’s play, with almost equal weight to each note, the same measured articulation, and near the end, just the right amount of schmaltz before the concluding movement at a tempo di minuet.
Beyond his technique, Steck’s tone is on display in the opening of the E-flat major sonata where Benda uses the violin lower’s register before ending the phrase in the higher tessitura of the instrument, peppering the opening phrase with double stops. We hear that evenness of violin sound. In the second section, where Benda pushes the performer further, with even higher notes, then the sound begins to suffer, which helps to remind us of innovation on display by this composer-violinist. The fun is put to the side in a more serious Adagio second movement that once again offers Steck the opportunity to show of the richness of his instrument’s tone.
The final Andante with variations builds upon an ornamented melody for the violin, placing emphasis on the melody over harmonic progression. Rieger’s adjustment of the harpsichord’s sound with a lute stop only improves the piece.
I was not that familiar with Benda’s violin music. This recital not only revealed his gifts as a galant-era musician, but as an innovator as composer of high quality violin literature. Steck and Rieger were up to the challenges with assured confidence and responsive dynamic control.