Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: Benedetti & Co Take Spa Town by Storm

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Triple Concerto in C, Op 56:  Benedetti/Elschenbroich/Grynyuk Trio, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 2.7.2014

Brahms, Arlene Sierra, Shostakovich: Benedetti/Elschenbroich /Grynyuk Trio, Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Benjamin Marquise Gilmore (viola), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 3.7.2014. Brahms: Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, Op 25
Arlene Sierra: Butterflies remember a Mountain
Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G minor, Op 57

One has to take one’s hat off to Nicola Benedetti. Since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition ten years ago she hasn’t let the grass grow under her feet. Her residency at the Cheltenham Music Festival is proof of this: not only is she giving three concerts, but she is also providing workshops and coaching for 150 young string players for a public performance of Holst and Shostakovich at the weekend.

Such energy and talent! But then she seems to surround herself with energetic (and talented) people, such as the German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and Ukrainian pianist Alexei Grynyuk who have been in action with her twice so far at the Festival. The first occasion was in the Beethoven Triple Concerto with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  This concerto harks back to the symphonie concertante form of the 18th century which was reaching the end of its popularity. Yet this is a fascinating work, not performed as much as it deserves to be, with echoes of the Eroica in the first movement.

Interestingly, it is the cello which takes the lead in all three movements. The composer was a great admirer of the cellist Anton Krafft who played in the first performance of the concerto, so Elschenbroich was offered plenty of opportunities to show off his versatility, not least in the quiet slow movement where his solo playing was utterly sublime.  There was some intense and engaging interplay between Elschenbroich and Benedetti, notably in the lengthy first movement, with Grynyuk intervening every so often as if to remind the others he wanted a part of the action. But then the piano part was written for Beethoven’s patron and pupil Archduke Rudolf  who obviously felt the need to assert himself. The finale was a very jolly affair in which one felt that the musicians, including conductor Kirill Karabits, were intent on having a good time.

The trio’s next encounter was with Brahms,  and was much more serious in tone – until the finale at any rate – with Benjamin Marquise Gilmore playing the viola part. After a quiet start the passion mounted only to be superseded by a more lyrical mood. The  Intermezzo played on muted strings was a pleasant subdued affair played with warmth, while the hymn-like slow movement possessed a feeling of nobility with a wondrous depth of feeling in the string passages. The finale, by contrast, was a riot, the pianist scurrying all over the keyboard with the strings in hot pursuit. One never regards Brahms as a extrovert but here for once he was letting his hair down and the four young virtuosi rose to the challenge of the infectious Magyar rhythms.

Arlene Sierra’s Butterflies Remember a Mountain, receiving its UK premiere, was inspired remarkably by a scientific study on the migration patterns of the Monarch butterfly. It appears that the butterfly flies in a giant circuit over the Great Lakes in order to circumvent a mountain that used to exist there in primeval times.  The first movement deals with the fluttering of the butterfly, the second with memory while the third embraces the might of the mountain and recalls an earlier large piano piece Ms Sierra wrote. A work of this type requires exceptional precision and a disciplined approach on the part of performers with no scope for self-expression – so very different from the Brahms quartet – but the Trio gained the approbation of both the composer and the audience who responded enthusiastically to the refreshing and unusual timbres in this piece.

Nicola Benedetti clearly regards Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet as one of the pinnacles of 20th century chamber music, and offered an exemplary introduction to the work and the man who had composed it, admitting that it could be hard-going at times for the performers. Grynyuk proved once more to be an exemplary pianist often playing apart from the other players as in the introductory section of the prelude. The second movement – a slow and gentle fugue which rises to an intense climax before returning tranquillity – bore all the hallmarks of Bach. In the central scherzo all pent-up emotions were released in a wild display of musical virtuosity with the pianist pounding out the brittle sonorities for all he was worth. The slow intermezzo of the fourth movement was pure enchantment with delicate piano accompaniments and graceful playing from the strings. The final movement felt sunnier and more relaxed, as if the composer had overcome his demons momentarily. Themes from the earlier movements appeared and were brushed resulting in a tranquil conclusion. This was a performance of distinction which revealed the exceptional nature of the Trio’s musicianship and their rare ability to incorporate other like-minded musicians into their stellar orbit.

Roger Jones  

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