Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Segerstam @ Royal Festival Hall, London

15 October 2009

Talk about contrasts. In pairing violinist Nicola Benedetti with conductor Leif Segerstam this concert given by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall not only compared youth and experience but two very distinct and compelling personalities.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

What might have been a conflicting juxtaposition was, however, a thrilling collaboration.

Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla kicked proceedings off. This wonderful, effervescent piece seems to promise so much but the opera itself was badly received at its premiere in 1842 and its reputation never recovered, so this fragment was condemned to its fate as an amuse-bouche the lively herald to the main event.

Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82, is too rarely heard. It is a complex and intriguing work with a melodic line that is slippery and meandering. For audiences this piece requires attentive listening nothing is ever quite as it seems and for the soloist it presents both practical and artistic challenges since the four movements are conflated into one. Not that that’s a problem here.

Since winning the 2004 Young Musician of the Year, Nicola Benedetti has shown maturity beyond her years, largely resisting the lure of Classic FM with serious musicianship and a commitment to new and challenging repertoire. Here she displayed both musical intelligence and a strong performing instinct, complementing Segerstam’s masculinity and the stormy orchestral accompaniment with elegance, grace and precision, her ‘Earl Spencer’ Stradivarius (c1712) lending a pleasingly ripe edge to the overall sound. One expects a strident charm offensive from young stars but that’s not Benedetti’s style: her manner is modest and the admiration she deservedly receives is won as if by stealth.

In the second half we returned to more familiar ground with Dvork’s enduringly popular Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, From the New World. In Segerstam’s hands, however, it was like hearing the piece anew. Those scherzo rhythms sounded wild and exhilarating and the hymnic largo movement, which has been bastardised by modern advertising, sounded fresh and penetrating, highlighted by Jill Crowther’s contribution on the cor anglais.

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