Album Reviews

Nicola Benedetti – Szymanowski : Violin Concerto No 1

(Deutsche Grammophon) UK release date: 9 May 2005

A battle has been reaching crisis point recentlybetween those that believe classical music should bereaching out to the masses (such as the ba-rock stringquartet Bond), and those that believe the state ofclassical music is fine as it is, thankyou very much,and that any attempt at expanding an audience basewill usually result in a dumbing down of quality.

Thisgroup often cite Classic FM, who regularly broadcastsonly single movements of longer works: to the criticsit is a loss of artistic integrity and musicalcohesion, but to Classic FM it is an attempt to alloweveryone to enjoy classical music without listening tothe less famous and less popular parts of a two hoursymphony.

It is hard to see what both camps would make ofNicola Benedetti’s debut CD. In what are perhaps thetwo most blatant mass-market popularisation ploys inthe history of classical music, this release, on thefamous and highly-regarded Deutsche Grammophon label,proudly states that you can ‘Get your official NicolaBenedetti Truetones and Ringtones Now!’, but perhapseven more surprisingly provides a playalong karaoketrack of Meditation by Massenet (performed by theLondon Symphony Orchestra, no less) with sheet musicdownloadable from the official website.

It would be easy for many to simply denounce therelease as being a stereotypical attempt atpopularising the classical genre. But that approachwould ignore the fact that the programme content is infact anything but ‘popular’.

The recording is opened and mainly taken up by the Szymanowski Concerto ForViolin And Orchestra. It was a challenging andinnovative idea for Benedetti to use the work in thefinal BBC Young Musician Of The Year 2004 Competition(which she won), and it is a challenging gamble toopen her debut with the same work. Far from being acrowd-pleaser, the work is filled with colourfuldiscords and unexpected rhythms. Conductor DanielHarding brings out some wonderfully colourful timbresin the orchestra, and throughout its three movementsthe performance of this relatively un-established workconstantly suprises, amuses and delights. Thebeginning of the final movement is taken up by aviolin cadenza which allows Benedetti to show off hermaturity and technique to a high degree.

In Camille Saint-Saens‘ work Habanera, both theorchestra and Benedetti comply well with thecomposer’s request of habanera rhythms (whose melodicidea was apparently based on the crackling of burningwood).

The recording ends with two interesting works neverbefore heard on disc. The first is an arrangement of aBrahms song by Heifetz. Orchestrated for thisrecording by Julian Reynolds, Contemplation is basedon Wie Melodien, and gives a true account of thesentiments of the song without hearing any of thewords. The orchestration is sublime and utterly inkeeping with Brahms’s own accompaniment writing, andis presided over by the calm and soaring violinline.

Finally, John Tavener‘s new work Fragment For TheVirgin completes the disc. The piece features closecounterpoint reminiscent of his choral piece TheLamb, although is much more discordant than itspredecessor. Loud and intense passages featureglissando violin playing, and the work ends with aquiet coda. Although some may not like the workbecause of its discordance, it is neverthelessindicative of the way Benedetti is unafraid tocommence and end her debut recording with challengingmodern writing, and she should be congratulated forthat. Primarily, however, this disc should be boughtfor the Szymanowski.

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Nicola Benedetti – Szymanowski : Violin Concerto No 1