Becca, a nine year-old violinist, was busking in central Edinburgh, gamely raising funds for the Benedetti Foundation. She is returning today with pegs to fasten her music down against the Scottish breeze, a living example of the powerful impact Nicola Benedetti has across the generations.  A resident artist at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, Benedetti herself was momentarily overcome with emotion as she addressed her first live Edinburgh audience in 18 months. There were a few tears shed as she explained the sheer joy of performing with her Baroque ensemble in front of real people. She thanked the Festival for the bold move to go ahead with the event, and she thanked the crowd for turning out.

Nicola Benedetti and members of the Benedetti Baroque Orchestra
© Ryan Buchanan

Events cannot turn on a sixpence to accommodate the unpredictable easing of Covid protocols. With its main venues off limits, EIF constructed three outdoor stages, cathedral-sized polytunnels seating a socially distanced audience of around 600. The fickle Edinburgh weather is a risk, always ready to upstage the performers, but happily the evening sun shone and the breeze died down. Amplified classical music is a challenge, but the technicians nailed it to perfection with careful, judicious intervention. It was not the Usher Hall, but it all worked well.

Italian Baroque has been a calling for Benedetti after working and touring with Andrea Macron and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Benedetti’s Baroque Orchestra is a handpicked team of top players from early music ensembles, pulled together at the last minute to record and perform this repertoire, which Benedetti describes as taking you from one mood and always leaving you in a better one.  

Geminiani’s arrangement of Corelli’s well-known earworm "La follia" in Concerto Grosso form allowed room for development and expression, the snapped rhythm from the violas and general tumble and tussle making the music so intoxicating. Benedetti was fiery and dynamic, adding exhilarating gloss to her energetic string band, mixing up the dynamics and sounds in a heady combination. Liz Kenny’s guitar thrummed percussively but emerged with a tender beauty in the slower moments.

Liz Kenny and members of the Benedetti Baroque Orchestra
© Ryan Buchanan

Two Vivaldi concertos followed, his sunny Violin Concerto in D major RV 211 followed by the darker Violin Concerto in B minor RV 386Taken at pace, the D major concerto was bright, with the ensemble almost breathing together as they playfully took the sound down and built it back. Benedetti’s cadenza was our only chance to catch her alone, sparkling with energy, she crisscrossed the strings with ease. Nikita Naumov, familiar to Scottish audiences from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is a double bass player you cannot miss, so it was fun to watch him throwing himself into the music, bouncing the bow off his strings to add a massive percussive heft to the ensemble. I enjoyed the quieter moments too, as Benedetti’s violin soared passionately over Steven Devine’s harpsichord and Kenny’s thoughtful guitar continuo. The B minor concerto was equally thrilling and full of interplay between the two pairs of violins and violas. With Kenny switched to theorbo, the excellent ensemble work tingled with the frisson of live performance unpredictability.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor RV 315 "Summer" from The Four Seasons was a request from EIF. It’s well known, but Benedetti and her orchestra made it sound fresh with careful phrasing and soft accent placements. A powerhouse continuo from Kenny, Devine and cellist Jonny Byres provided backbone, with wild moments from Naumov and virtuoso playing from Benedetti rounding the piece off with a flourish.

The encore, the Largo from Tartini’s Violin Concerto in A major, which Benedetti explained had a subtext of smiling through tears, was a simple warm tune, played soulfully and calmly. It was completely spellbinding – you could have heard a pin drop at the end.