There is no getting away from it: when Nicola Benedetti plays to the home crowd in Scotland, it is a major event. She is a genuine classical music star through her playing and continued advocacy for young musicians – a small group of Edinburgh music students from across the city were invited into rehearsals, a golden ticket if ever there was one. The Usher Hall was packed to the roof and seating opened up in the organ gallery for this rather special all-Beethoven concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the string section only 25 players strong and with natural brass, as the horn players’ crooks were all lined up in readiness.
The best programmes leave the main feature until last, so Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 1 was a lively opener. Written after Leonore no. 2 for a performance of Fidelio in Prague that never took place it is short and compact if rather neglected work, beginning with a slow introduction of overlapping string phrases, seamlessly connected. Lively conductor Joseph Swensen got the best from his small forces by arranging the violins to his left and right producing a gloriously wide spatial sound. There was plenty of sharp attack in the central section, sparky woodwind and thrilling unison runs in the strings. The overall balance was perfect with the natural brass, even with four horns, blending in rather than standing out.
Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, coming between the Eroica and the well-known Fifth, can get overlooked, yet there is much delight to discover in its varied palette of light and dark. Beginning with mysterious shadowy hesitant music, a robust theme emerged with lots of detail in the phrasing. The measured heartbeat tread of the Adagio built to a climax, an animated Swensen making hatchet-chopping motions in his excitement before a lovely clarinet nocturne with tender string accompaniment calmed things down, the joining phrases across sections absolutely seamless. An exciting Allegro with sprightly bassoons and cross-rhythms was soon over too soon as the scurrying passages of the Finale appeared, flung round the orchestra with precision. We might have missed the grandeur of the larger symphony orchestra sound, but the smaller forces more than made up for it with a performance of litheness and intimacy.
And so, to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, described by the long awaited soloist as “a piece coming from the heavens”. It is a long wait in the first movement until the soloist comes in, and Benedetti’s left hand was gently fingering the first violin part as the orchestra established the themes. She gave an absolutely stunning performance, allowing the music to breathe, taking the soaring tunes and weaving them back through into the orchestral texture in a warm rich mellowness. A virtuoso cadenza, full of double stops all around the melody was relieved by her breaking into a wide smile as she took back the simple tune. The slow movement’s dreamy melody soared over pizzicato strings and horns, Benedetti mesmerising to watch as she makes it all look so effortless. Linking straight through to the well-known last movement, she was in complete rapport with Swensen and the players, almost dancing with huge grins of infectious enjoyment when the rollicking music came round again.
This was a wonderful partnership, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on top form to match a truly exciting soloist, playing to an extremely happy home crowd who gave Nicola Benedetti the warmest of receptions.
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