It was Robert Schumann who called Beethoven's Fourth Symphony "a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants". Nestling between the revolutionary Eroica and the Fifth’s hammer blows of Fate, the sunny Fourth is no shrinking violet, a little minx brimming with Haydnesque wit. In this very fine concert given by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Marin Alsop, she stood alongside another giant, the Violin Concerto in D major that Beethoven composed the same year.

Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler

“Perfection is overrated!” joked Alsop at the pre-concert talk and there was certainly some hesitant intonation in the gentle introduction to the Fourth. Things soon settled as the Allegro vivace section of the first movement burst into life. Alsop bustled and prodded, a hive of nervous energy on the podium, driving the drama tautly. Woodwind colour included some occasionally acidic clarinet tone. Alsop drew plenty of nuance in the Adagio, while the Scherzo poked in the ribs before pulling back to a genial pace for the Trio section. The Fourth is at its most rebellious in the finale and the OAE didn’t disappoint, bows clattering percussively, bassoon jabbering raucously, while timpani and brass underlined the punchlines in red.

Alsop is a regular OAE collaborator and a familiar figure in front of many British orchestras, relationships marked by the presentation of the Association of British Orchestras award before the concert’s second half. This programme, however, marked the very first time that Nicola Benedetti had played with the OAE, although it was not her first time playing on gut strings. The difference in her sound from previous hearings was huge. What was glossy and silvery on steel strings, in a concerto such as Korngold’s, was here replaced by a nutty sweetness in timbre shaded by a dusky charcoal in the lowest register. With lean, athletic orchestral partners, it allowed Benedetti to explore a wide range of dynamic gradations between mezzo-piano and pianissimo, which she did with great sensitivity along with an impeccable trill.

The only cadenza Beethoven wrote for this concerto was for the piano adaptation he made at the request of Muzio Clementi, a rather grandiose solo underpinned by timpani. Various violinists such as Gidon Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaja have taken on this cadenza in various guises and, for these performances, Benedetti has created her own in collaboration with Petr Limonov. After developing a theme from the concerto’s tutti introduction, Benedetti engaged in some gentle sparring with Adrian Bending’s impish timps before heading off into a free Beethovenian fantasy, exploiting harmonics until pizzicato strings drew the orchestra back in.

If the first movement had fire and imagination, it was the contemplative Larghetto that impressed most. Slow and tender, but never schmaltzy, it approached religious reverence in tones so hushed one could sense the audience holding its collective breath. The Rondo finale was amiable rather than ebullient, a simple expression of joyous music-making in the company of friends. Benedetti looked entirely at home with her new family, which is just as well as they’re soon touring this programme, minus Alsop, to the United States and Abu Dhabi.