Szymanowsky Violin Concerto No 1

Technically superb, this brilliant debut shows a fine artist in the making

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Szymanowsky Violin Concerto No 1

  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1
  • Havanaise
  • Poème
  • Thaïs, Méditation
  • (5) Lieder, No. 1, Wie Melodien zieht es mir (wds. Groth)
  • Fragment for the Virgin
  • Thaïs, Méditation

By any reckoning this is a most impressive debut recording. Nicola Benedetti, since becoming BBC Young Artist of the Year last May, has won a major contract with DG. Born in Scotland of Italian stock, she studied at the Menuhin School before deciding at 15 – against advice – to study on her own and then with a new teacher, Maciej Rakowski. Her firmness has certainly paid off. At 17 she displays in each of these items the temperament, concentration and imagination of a great artist in the making, quite apart from her virtuoso technique.

The centrepiece is the Szymanowski First Violin Concerto, the work she played in the final of the BBC competition, and the passion of her perform- ance is remarkable, even suggesting a parallel with the young du Pré. Daniel Harding draws intense playing from the LSO and the impact of the performance is heightened by the relatively close balance of soloist and orchestra, hitting home very hard in the exotic climaxes.

That is the plus point, but it does mean that, helped by recordings less upfront, both Thomas Zehetmair and Lydia Mordkovitch convey an ethereal, other-worldly quality in the hushed high-flying solos. Similarly, Simon Rattle and Vassily Sinaisky are more subtle than Harding in graduating texture and dynamic, not giving quite so much so soon but gaining in the long run. Both rivals also have the Second Szymanowski Concerto for coupling.

The point here is that Benedetti rather than Szymanowski is the focus, and the shorter works are equally successful in revealing her flair and imagination. I compared her readings of the Chausson Poème and Saint-Saëns Havanaise with those of Itzhak Perlman 30 years ago, and Benedetti in no way falls short, pointing the habanera rhythms of the Saint-Saëns deliciously and, in the final coda, wittily. In both pieces her rapt concentration ties firmly together the contrasting sections of works that can easily ramble. In Massenet’s ‘Méditation’ her warmth of phrase and tone never falls into soupiness, with rubato always sounding spontaneous. The Brahms song in Heifetz’s arrangement is a piece Benedetti is especially fond of, having played it at the Menuhin School. Here it comes in an exotic new orchestral arrangement by Julian Reynolds, who pays his own tribute to Brahms in the horn writing. Fragment for the Virgin was written for Benedetti by John Tavener; he seems to have been particularly influenced by her playing for this is quite unlike most of his music. After a bold opening over a drone, it is sharply sectional with warm melodies, high dynamic contrasts and a hushed close.

Benedetti insists she should keep control over her recorded repertory. This first brilliant disc bears out her wisdom in that decision.

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