Nicola Saves the Day with a Winning Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Bruch, Beethoven: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Oxford Philomusica / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 4.12.13
Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture, ‘Fingal’s Cave’, Op. 26
Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92


This concert was originally to have featured Anne-Sophie Mutter performing Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, but she had to withdraw the previous day owing to ill health  (though her performance is due to be rescheduled). It was highly commendable that Nicola Benedetti stepped in at such short notice, and, with her delightful performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, it seems churlish to complain that this is hardly a concerto (unlike Dvořák’s) in need of advocacy. Strangely though, the billed performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 was substituted by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Certainly the latter provided more substantial fare, but not a few in the audience will have heard Oxford Philomusica’s performance of this recently as part of their complete Beethoven symphony cycle.

The programme opened with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. Under a surface of relative calm, Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philomusica established an impression of the swell and surge of the sea, as well as a shifting panorama of cloud and sunlight overhead, leaving it until the recapitulation and coda to achieve a true sense of awe and the sublime.

The opening dialogue between woodwind and solo violin in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 seemed sunk in torpor and melancholy in this performance, but thereafter Benedetti’s performance took off with real fire and passion. Her interpretation remained warmly engaging, both in her interaction with the orchestra and her communication to the audience. Papadopoulos pushed ahead with a wild development in the first movement and a couple of rapturous climaxes in the second. In the latter, Benedetti’s musical lines were fluid and instinctive, working entirely in tandem with the mood and pace set by the orchestra. Her solos in the finale were playful, even feisty, with the movement skidding along to a satisfyingly exuberant conclusion.

There can hardly have been much time for rehearsal, but that did not come across at all in the coherence of the finished performance – testament, surely, to Beneditti’s winning personality and her understanding of the difference between leading and being led, as occasion demands, in this Concerto’s progression, which at times is more rhapsodic than overtly confrontational.

Papadopoulos’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was more or less consistent with that given a couple of weeks previously, though the sound from the several sections of the orchestra – including the timpani – now seemed better integrated, and the performance perhaps more generally assured by virtue of the opportunity to play it again so soon. In this regard, the second movement was moulded into better musical shape, with a sorrowful opening section constructed in carefully shaded layers as the melody moved up the string section. The opening of the fugato was cautious and mysterious, but the ensuing crescendo was precisely judged so as to lead inexorably and dramatically to the full restatement of the main theme, thus mirroring the effect of the ascending scales which gather momentum in the slow introduction to the first movement. My only quibble was with the violins’ using open E strings on the important, reiterated dominant note of the main subject in A minor. I don’t recall this happening before, but whether it did or not, the stark bareness of that sonority worked against the mood of ashen sorrow with which the theme was otherwise characterised here.

The first part of the Scherzo’s Trio section seemed a little static, but if anything, Papadopoulos took the finale a little more briskly this time, though maintaining an iron grip so that it advanced with thrilling, relentless force, amply fulfilling the sense of purpose and direction sustained over the movements which preceded it.

Curtis Rogers 

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