United Kingdom Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.11.2014 (SRT)
Rachmaninov: March from Cinq Études-tableaux (orch. Respighi)
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4
Shostakovich’s first violin concerto is one of those intensely dramatic works that come from one of the darkest periods of his life. The masterpieces of the late 1940s, however, are even more stunning than those of the mid-‘30s because the composer was then towards the very peak of his powers, and this concerto is one of those works where the composer seems to put down bore-holes into his soul (and, in the process, the souls of his listeners and performers). This isn’t repertoire that naturally comes to mind when you think of Nicola Benedetti, and it’s a testament to how fine her powers are at the moment that she generated a performance of such searching intensity and searing honesty that it ranks as, perhaps, the finest thing I’ve heard her in. That bore-hole effect is particularly moving in the third movement Passacaglia, which she played with searing legato that seemed to rise above the tortured orchestral manoeuvrings that were unfolding around her. The cadenza that she then launched into seemed to run the whole gamut of emotions from melancholy through sorrow to desperation before turning on a pinhead, as only Shostakovich can, into a crazy, curdled mania that hurtled through the finale. The agility tests of the second and fourth movements showed off her technical prowess in all its breathtaking completeness; slurs, runs, leaps and glissandi all tossed off as if it were all in a day’s work, and the orchestral winds deserve a special mention for their crazy paving solos in the scherzo. Shostakovich called the first movement a Nocturne, but here more than in most performances, it struck me that he must have been ironic, as there is not a hint of that genre’s consolation as you would find it in Chopin or Field: instead Benedetti and Oundjian presented us with a profoundly gloomy meditation, uncurling from within itself and seeming to be powered by a profound inner sorrow that is difficult to pin down.
Technical aspects aside, Benedetti’s performance was so successful because she tapped right into the piece’s emotional soul, and at times she seemed to be visibly moved by performing it. I wonder if this week was the first time she has played it? She’s enormously popular with the home crowd and it was inevitable that she would be called out for an encore, here a Scots arrangement of the original version of Auld Lang Syne, the same one that featured on her recent Homecoming album. She prefaced it, however, by remarking that it somehow didn’t seem right to play something extra after Shostakovich’s concerto. Regrettably, in this instance, she was right.
Rachmaninov’s march was well-played filling and a neat way into the evening. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, on the other hand, is one of that composer’s most important and powerful works. The violins played the first movement’s main theme with a persuasive lilt that grew in power as it went on, but the plaudits for conveying the work’s “Russian-ness” go to the winds, be it their jaunty, slightly off-kilter playing of the first movement’s second theme or, even better, the soulful solos that launched the second movement canzona. Oundjian controlled the unfolding drama very successfully, and I was particularly impressed with his natural handling of the large-scale accelerando in the first movement, as well as his shading of the mood in the Scherzo. The cumulative power of the finale was exhilarating, too, especially in the coda; almost enough to chase out the memories of Shostakovich’s dark introspection… but not quite.