Benedetti and the Philharmonia prove Beethoven’s music is a force to bring us together whatever the circumstances

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Benedetti Plays Beethoven: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Philharmonia / Pekka Kuusisto (conductor). Livestreamed from London’s Royal Festival Hall, 30.11.2020. (JPr)

Nicola Benedetti (violin), Pekka Kuusisto (conductor) & Philharmonia

Beethoven – Violin Concerto D major, Op.61; Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.36

A superb tribute to Beethoven’s 250th anniversary in the Philharmonia’s own 75th! There was excellent music-making, and it was well-presented on film by John Suchet with my only criticism being that it took too long to become available on demand after the initial live broadcast (directed by Kriss Russman). During a pre-recorded interval interview conductor Pekka Kuusisto and violinist Nicola Benedetti were asked by Suchet whether these presentations have ‘changed the way we will do classical music in the future?’. Kuusisto suggested ‘We’ve all learned a lot of new tricks … new ways of communicating what we do.’ For Benedetti it was how ‘Those that are most daring will come up with something better and new, and out of something dark will be a different kind of light.’ Now for my opinion (for what it’s worth): it will be harder to find an audience for concerts, opera, musicals, and ballet in the future who will regularly want to spend large sums of money for something they have got used to watching on their TVs and laptops for a mere pittance, or even free!

Quite rightly Suchet had praised Beethoven by saying how we are still ‘being inspired, moved, and uplifted by his music’ even after 250 years. Later he reminded us how Beethoven had composed his Violin Concerto ‘at the end of a traumatic year [1806]. Mind you, you could say that just about any year in Beethoven’s life.’ Its first performance was fairly disastrous, and the concerto was not performed again in the composer’s lifetime and Suchet added, ‘In fact, it wasn’t even rediscovered until decades after Beethoven’s death.’ It only began to become more frequently performed after 12-year-old Joseph Joachim played it during his London debut on 27 May 1844 at which the conductor was Felix Mendelssohn, a champion of neglected music. Joachim remained for several years virtually the only violinist to perform the concerto with any frequency. He composed cadenzas for it which are still frequently heard, though Benedetti played her own new(ish) one that was composed with her friend, the pianist Petr Limonov, which blends a direct quote from Beethoven’s piano version of the cadenza with new music. Benedetti’s approach to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto has changed since she first played it and she said now ‘in a way it is so much more playful and diverse. A long way from how I felt towards it ten years ago.’ That was evident from her performance.

Benedetti Plays Beethoven

Violinists of Beethoven’s time may have been put off by the work’s unprecedented proportions. On its own, the length of the first movement (at 25 minutes) exceeds that of nearly every earlier complete concerto for the violin; as well as it having a more serious character compared to those predecessors. Whilst the opening bars proclaim this first movement as expansive and dramatic – and although the solo writing is admittedly demanding – there is virtually nothing to show off the bravura virtuosity of the soloist. They must however play as Nicola Benedetti did – always does? – with warm, mellow tone, and haunting lyricism. A highlight was her exquisite fingering and the camera close-ups focused on the clean trills from her left hand’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th fingers. Then there was all the other ornamentation, fine intonation, light vibrato, and the breath she gave to the musical lines. The concert was recorded in the empty Royal Festival Hall with Benedetti in sombre black against some garish lime green, blood red, and blue lighting of the hall.

Listening to the reduced forces of the Philharmonia (only 55 in total it seems) there was no denying the similarity of some of the music – throughout the concerto – to the opera Beethoven had recently completed. For this first movement it is the dungeon scene – and possibly Don Pizzarro’s vengeance aria ‘Ha, welch ein Augenblick’ – from Fidelio that you will be reminded of most. Benedetti’s cadenza featured slashing chords, an angular jauntiness, and ominous timpani strokes that were a little at odds with all the movement’s inherent lyricism.

Benedetti’s Larghetto – at barely 10 minutes – was slow, beautifully calm, and meditative. It shows Beethoven delighting so much in his theme that he repeats it four times in a row, while asking the solo violin to craft the most delicate sounds as it is played higher and higher in its register. Benedetti was supported by some refined playing from the Philharmonia with some plucked string to the fore.

The lilting Rondo (only 9 minutes or so) is instantly recognisable and – as if to make up for the wait that it had before being heard in the first movement – the solo violin jumps right in to deliver the melody with only the merest suggestion of accompaniment from the double basses. It is a credit to Benedetti’s virtuosity that even Beethoven’s uglier passages sound sweet; the music is redolent of the Vienna Woods and Austrian folk music, but mostly it is like variations on a theme. Benedetti’s rapid attack brought the concerto to a close and overall, her performance was a model of firm technique, balance, and restraint.

Suchet told us how Beethoven’s Second Symphony begins with ‘a massive chord as if to say “No, I will not let my deafness stop me composing”’. It was premiered in 1803 and whilst there is drama aplenty it is not a dark work and its intrinsic nostalgia and underlying optimism leads to the resplendent orchestral tutti at the end. This first movement was spirited, and the second (Larghetto) evoked Austrian Ländler and was distinctly pastoral with a radiance that now foreshadowed the ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ (‘O welche Lust’ / ‘O what a joy’), from Fidelio. The short Scherzo was cheerful, and I can’t surely be the first to suggest it sounds a lot like Schuhplattler, the Austrian slapping dance? The music which begins the final movement (Allegro molto) is energetic and stormier, and it all ends in triumphant and celebratory mood.

Pekka Kuusisto – who began as a violinist – conducted sensitively and with measured tempi throughout. He was more histrionic with a baton in his hand but seems to have the most expressive hands which encouraged his musicians to bring out some crisp, bright textures in Beethoven music and be responsive to its intense feeling and heart-on-its-sleeve moments. Featured in the spotlight were wonderful contributions throughout both the concerto and the symphony from concertmaster Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, Amy Yule’s flute, Timothy Rundle’s oboe, Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet, Antoine Siguré on the timpani, and most notably Emily Hultmark’s bassoon.

Quite rightly John Suchet concluded the broadcast with ‘Music – and Beethoven’s more than anyone’s – is a force to bring us together whatever the circumstances.’ Roll on a happier 2021 for us all and here is hoping we do not have to wait for 2022 for a ‘normal’ life!

Jim Pritchard

Available to stream until May 2021 and for more information about the Philharmonia click here.

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