The considerable musical output of the Benda family in the 18th-century is given only modest recognition in terms of currently available recordings and the identification of each composer of that name is not always made clear. The six Symphonies recorded here are by Jiří Antonín Benda (1722-1795) who in the early years of his career worked at the court of Frederick the Great before moving to the court of Saxe-Gotha in 1750. Although a quarter of a century later he travelled through Germany and Austria seeking other employment he returned to court for his final years. Not surprisingly he is equally well-known by the Germanic form of his name – Georg Anton, but his brothers František (Franz), who wrote seventeen Symphonies, and Jan Jiří (Johann Georg) were also successful composers. Researcher Robert Dearling has identified nine 18th-century composers named Benda together with two females of the family who worked under their married names.
Later generations of the Benda family inherited much musical talent including conductor (and composer) Christian whose performances of his ancestor’s works are given on this recording in convincing style. These lightly-scored works, supported by harpsichord continuo, sometimes recall the sound (but not the style) of C. P. E. Bach. The numbering of the twelve Symphonies was created at the time of their discovery in 1950 by Musica Antiqua Bohemica. The numerical sequence they were given was not, however, chronological.
All the Symphonies are in a major key. Three are in G and here Benda exploits the horns high in their register – an effect reminiscent of Haydn’s adventurous use of these instruments when in high B-flat. The Prague Sinfonietta has a fine horn section and these musicians perform their demanding melodic passages with immaculate accuracy. The D-major Symphonies also make demands on these instruments although here their role is more harmonic than thematic, leaving the composer to exploit the woodwinds to a greater extent. The C-major Symphony that ends the programme is more sonically conventional than the companion works yet tension still lies beneath its themes and the conductor’s firmly rhythmic treatment of the Minuet-like Finale gives suitable weight to this otherwise slight work.
Those familiar with 18th-century symphonic form may be a little surprised at the layout of these works, especially in the opening movements where Symphony V is the only one to start with a movement in conventional sonata form; the others begin with an individually structured piece where formal repeats are often replaced by restatements using a different key. Most of the Finales have the usual two parts with each repeated (curiously X has only a ‘second’ repeat) and they are usually given a coda.
I particularly enjoyed Symphony X with its delightful use of bassoon in the outer movements. The works are short in length, the most substantial being the lively V which approaches twelve minutes, so there would surely have been space for further Benda Symphonies, but all these examples have great charm. They are superbly played and are given excellent recorded sound within a spacious acoustic.