Stunning Szymanowski from Nicola Benedetti

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Glinka, Szymanowski, Mussorgsky, Ravel Nicola Benedetti (violin), London Symphony Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbanksi (conductor) Barbican Hall, London, 3.5.2015 (RB)

Glinka – Overture: Ruslan and Lyudmila
Szymanowski – Violin Concerto No. 1 Op 35
Mussorgsky/RavelPictures at an Exhibition

This concert was one of a series of twelve which make up the LSO International Violin Festival. The Festival is a celebration of the violin concerto repertoire and features some of the finest soloists in the world. In this concert it was the turn of Nicola Benedetti who was playing the work which she performed to win the Young Musician of the Year competition back in 2004 – Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto. Rising star Polish conductor, Krzysztof Urbanski, took up the baton in his début performance with the LSO.

The concert opened with the overture to Glinka’s second opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila. The overture begins with the music that ends the opera when the eponymous lovers are reunited after various ordeals. Urbanski clearly had a good rapport with his players and he brought out the propulsive energy and infectious high spirits of the piece. The racing scales were crisp and tightly controlled and the tempi and balance of sound were well judged.

Nicola Benedetti has become closely associated with the Szymanowki First Violin Concerto as it was her first recording with Daniel Harding and the LSO back in 2005 and it was the piece which she chose for her début concert with the LSO (under the baton of Valery Gergiev) in 2012. The work is in one continuous movement and it is a curious mixture of the mystical and the sensuous, sharing a close affinity with the music of Debussy and Scriabin who were clearly major influences on the composer at the time of the work’s composition. Urbanski and the LSO opened by providing darting atomised fragments that coalesced beautifully into a sinuous web of sound. Benedetti was playing on her Gariel Stradavarius and perfectly captured the highly perfumed and sumptuous eroticism of the concerto. Her intonation was flawless and she produced golden threads of melody that soared above her orchestral partners. She allowed the music to develop organically in a seamless arc as she moved from the mystical sensuality of the music to the more spiky and trenchant elements, the introspection and playful mischief making. Urbanski worked in perfect harmony with his soloist and was alive to the quicksilver mood changes within the score. The warm expansive sound the LSO produced at the climaxes to the piece had an emotionally overwhelming quality. Benedetti’s handling of the cadenza (written by the Polish violinist Pavel Kochanski) was technically flawless. She moved inexorably to the work’s conclusion, where she and her orchestral partners deftly allowed the work to evaporate into the night. Benedetti performed an encore by Tartini with the LSO’s two principal first violins and principal cello which she dedicated to the journalist Katie Jones who recently passed away.

The final work in the programme was Ravel’s wonderful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. There was much to admire in this performance. Urbanski had a tight grip on the musical pulse as we walked through the exhibition of Victor Hartmann’s work and each of the paintings was brilliantly characterised. There were some imaginative changes of tone colour in the various transformations of the promenade theme although the intonation in the opening trumpet solo was not perfect. I loved the smoky alto saxophone solo in ‘Il Vecchio Castello’ and the clucking of the woodwind in ‘The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’. The bustle of the marketplace came to life in Limoges – I was particularly struck with the expressive hand gestures which Urbanski used to bring out some of the quarrels which punctuated the music. There was a nice sprinkling of colour from the percussionists in ‘Gnomus’ although I wondered if there was scope for Urbanski and the orchestra to bring out more of the sinister malevolence of the piece. The tuba solo was brilliantly executed in ‘Bydlo’ and I particularly liked the calibrated build-up of sound but I would have liked to hear more of the heaviness in the movement of the ox-cart wheels from the lower strings. Urbanski and the LSO did an excellent job with the contrasting portraits of the rich and poor Jews and in bringing out the dark portentous quality in the portrait of the Paris catacombs. The timpani gave up some explosive shocks at the opening of ‘Baba Yaga’ and the piece had a raw visceral energy. Urbanski coaxed a gorgeous stately sheen from the LSO at the opening of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ and I loved the stately nobility which they managed to achieve as the piece was allowed to build – this was a great way to end the concert.

Overall, this was a very fine début from Urbanski – hopefully there will be many more opportunities for him to work with the LSO – and Benedetti’s performance of the Szymanowski was stunning.

Robert Beattie

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