Magnificent Opener to the LPO’s New Season as Nicola Benedetti Dazzles in Szymanowski

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Szymanowski, Bartók: Nicola Benedetti (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.9.2016. (CS)

Debussy Prélude à l’aprèsmidi dun faune
Szymanowski – Violin Concerto No.1 Op; Violin Concerto No.2 OP.61
Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin Op.19 BB82

Nicola Benedetti has made Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto something of a calling card.  It was the work with which she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award in 2004, and it was the focal work on her debut album, released on the Deutsche Grammophon label in April 2005, alongside Chausson’s Poème, the Havanaise by Saint-Saëns, and miniatures by Massenet, Brahms and John Tavener.

It’s always a treat to hear Benedetti play this work; she seems to have penetrated through its complex structure and arguments and reached its expressive core.  And she has the technical arsenal to make things just as clear to the listener too.  Better still, at the Royal Festival Hall, in the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s first concert of the 2016-17 season, she gave us a double dose of pleasure, performing both of the Polish composer’s violin concertos either side of the interval.  Vladimir Jurowski is a big draw and the LPO’s programme appealing offered a scintillating but rarely heard score by Bartók, but Benedetti’s presence probably accounted for the near sell-out audience and she did not disappoint.  As ever, Benedetti’s own joy in music-making communicated through and beyond the complexities and challenges of the work’s performed and warmed the hearts of all present.

But before that there was Debussy: the composer’s sonorous sound-scape, Prélude à l’aprèsmidi dun faune.  Juliette Bausor’s opening flute melody was relaxed and languorous but full-toned, while the soft-edged horns added further warmth.  Jurowski initially encouraged restraint and reticence, creating mystery, and the first unambiguous major chord brought a welcome easing and blossoming.  Throughout, the surface was transparent, sometimes fragile even, but underneath a core of strength was suggested, as contrasting colours and textures – nasally oboe, plump pizzicato, glistening tremolos, sforzando horns, harp arpeggiation – ebbed and flowed.  Injections of energy suggested expansion but the music remained airy and the harmonic and modulatory ‘slips’ conjured the elusiveness and magic of a fairy tale.

Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.1, composed in 1916, blends Debussy’s kaleidoscopic metamorphosis with the modal folksiness of Bartók, and Benedetti and the LPO sculpted both elements with precision and passion in this blazing performance.  The orchestra is a large one and Jurowski did not refrain from encouraging his instrumentalists to play with energetic intensity and forthright excitement; but Benedetti’s firm, unfailingly dulcet tone, coloured by varied and characterful vibrato, bloomed gorgeously and carried through and above the orchestral fabric.  The high E string, above low drones in the orchestra, simply dazzled with brightness.

Jurowski and Benedetti were in perfect concord as they negotiated the work’s frequent shifts of gear and changes of direction.  Jurowski displayed extraordinary, almost physical involvement with the music; his left-hand was astonishingly expressive while the baton in his right conjured a hypnotic Romantic sweep, driving forward with candour and power.

The Second Concerto, composed in 1933, is more folk-inspired, and Benedetti relished the gutsy folk-fiddle passages, integrating them well into the colourful cosmopolitanism of the score.  Her playing conveyed both vigour and maturity, and one could sense her listening intently and with real delight to the orchestral parts which embrace the violin line; she was never overpowered by the massive orchestral outbursts, and Jurowski ensured that the LPO complemented the solo line.  There was a mercurial mood in the Scherzo that echoed the youthful puckishness of the First Concerto, while the final movement was richly ardent.  If there was anything at all to ‘criticise’, it might be that Benedetti’s tone was so unwaveringly sweet that she perhaps did not fully bring out the differences between the two concertos – but this can hardly be a ‘complaint’!

After such wonderful expression and artistry, it was astonishing that there was even more compelling music-making to come, but Jurowski’s fierce and urgent reading of the suite from Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin inspired the LPO to even greater technical virtuosity and thrilling vitality, and was the highlight of this concert.

A sensational magazine story by Melchior Lengye was the stimulus for, The Miraculous Mandarin.  ‘Urban eroticism’, to paraphrase one musicologist, burns at its heart as violence, passion and murder entwine the lives of a mysterious Oriental, three violent thugs and a young woman. After the work’s premiere in Cologne in 1926 and a performance in Prague, Mandarin was banned in much of Europe because of the luridness of its tale, and the composer never heard it again in his lifetime.  In fact, it is seldom heard in the concert hall, perhaps because of the virtuosic demands it makes on each and every section of the orchestra.  In this stunning performance, however, Jurowski inspired the LPO to remarkable technical heights and captured every tint and extremity of the ballet suite’s colourful musical narrative.

The opening was feverish and wild, and the intensity never lessened, though lyrical passages and solos allowed different hues and moods to emerge within the prevailing emotional fire.  The girl’s dance of enticement was silkily sung by the clarinet, with a sensuous touch of darkness in the lower register.  The brass, particularly the trombones, were fantastic throughout, their rhythms biting, their glissandi unnerving.  At the close fearful brass chords shattered through the fugue depicting the Mandarin’s furious pursuit of the girl in the final movement and the ending was a paradoxical fusion of brutal aggression and flawless musical control.  Jurowski’s crafting of the whole was commanding: the score’s contrasts, which could create a mosaic-like impression, merged and formed a lyrical flow.

Bartók started his ballet in 1918. Though this was some time after the period during which the Hungarian composer experimented with the gestures of Gallic impressionism, such as the whole-tone scale, echoes of Debussy seemed present in the beautiful shimmer and glow of the LPO’s string sections, bringing us back where this terrific concert began.

Claire Seymour

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