Nicola Benedetti has waited before tackling Elgar’s Violin Concerto, but has now played it a few times in 2019. It’s a long work, and one of the most difficult in the repertoire with its multiple-stopping, unorthodox string crossings and leaping around the instrument, all at speed – it’s almost as exciting to watch as to hear. The long orchestral exposition of the opening Allegro showed Benedetti had a fine collaborator in Vladimir Jurowski, who brought surging passion to the music. The lovely second subject theme (which Elgar called “windflower”, his pet name for the woman who inspired the concerto) was phrased romantically but kept up to speed, then relaxing just enough for the solo clarinet continuation to touch in some woodwind – or woodland – colour.

Nicola Benedetti © Andy Gotts
Nicola Benedetti
© Andy Gotts

Benedetti’s earliest passages were not ideally commanding – the first solo entry was not as haunting as it can be, and that delicate second theme did not flower quite as early as windflowers usually do. But as the music progressed she became a compelling protagonist, a master of the notes and of the meaning behind them. The dramatic sections of interplay between violinist and orchestra raised the excitement level, and when Elgar gave the orchestra its head the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s playing was heroic. The horns produced a noble blaze to close this greatest of all movements for violin and orchestra.

The restrained lyricism of the second movement Andante was songful and soulful in its repose from the soloist, and Jurowski guided his musicians inexorably to an eloquent climax. The finale began in athletic style, the double stops and arpeggios flying from Benedetti’s Stradivarius with a tone of ripped silk. Benedetti made the unaccompanied cadenza the emotional heart of the work, nostalgically investing the windflower theme with the poignancy it lacked at the outset.

Elgar said of this work "It's good! Awfully emotional! Too emotional, but I love it.” With a few more performances (she still has the score there, though unconsulted) and the scheduled Decca recording with the LPO and Jurowski, I suspect we will love Benedetti’s Elgar too.

Strauss famously commented at the dress rehearsal for An Alpine Symphony's premiere that he had finally mastered orchestration. The work is scored for about 120 musicians, though Strauss regarded the 18.16.12.10.8 string band as a minimum (tonight we had 10 basses). On the page this is less orchestration, more job creation scheme. Of the mastery there can be no doubt right from that arresting nocturnal opening with its low unison in strings, horns, and woodwinds. As night yielded to day, the orchestra offered a glorious sunrise – very loud but the volume expanding without coarsening. This care for impact but not at the expense of good tone was a feature of the LPO’s work throughout.

Jurowski’s concern for balance was immaculate, his left hand often issuing a restraining order to the brass. Take that much meticulous care of the sound, and the sense – of a great adventure from dawn to dusk – prevails. Sonic spectacle grows wearisome if that is all we have for 45 minutes. But each episode – the section labels shown on a surtitle screen – was vividly realised. Perhaps only the Waterfall with its Apparition did not quite come off, its bright glittering sounds rather too opaque. The Ascent includes the distant sounds of a hunting party, represented by an offstage band of twelve horns, two trumpets, and two trombones. (An innocent friend, not knowing the work, heard it first at a Prom. He opted for the Royal Albert Hall gallery, right next to the offstage brass, and it was the large orchestra far below that sounded distant.) Here the balance was ideal, at least from a good Stalls seat.

When we arrived On the Summit, the centre of the score, the solo oboe stammered in wonder at the view, and as themes were now reheard, Jurowski expertly stage managed the culmination, and the mighty trombone theme arrived in awesome majesty. But the work should not peak (sorry) too soon, as the use of the largest number of instruments still awaits us, in the Thunder and Storm. An ominous drum roll, odd raindrops (short notes in the upper winds and pizzicato violins), flashes of lightning (piccolo), then a wind machine, announce the fury of an Alpine tempest. Add the thunder machine and the RFH organ and the audience were bowing their heads against the imagined blizzard, so effective was the terracing of the dynamics here. The golden Sunset was spacious, its climax radiant, the Epilogue given with “gentle ecstasy" as marked. “Cinema music” scoffed a critic in 1915. Perhaps, but for a great movie, one with a brilliant director in Vladimir Jurowski. 

****1