Nicola Benedetti successfully established her Szymanowski credentials early in her career by setting down a very fine recording of the first violin concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. After this live performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I very much hope she will go on to record the second. A mark of any successful performance is surely the unfamiliar listener’s immediate urge to hear it again and I certainly felt that.

Nicola Benedetti © Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler
The concerto is scored for a remarkably large orchestra, including five percussionists, a tuba, contrabassoon and orchestral piano. Szymanowski’s use of the latter in his violin concertos is particularly notable as few composers, even in the twentieth century, employed the orchestral piano in their concertos. Whilst the composer’s first concerto tends towards the impressionistic, the second is more assertive. It opens with a grumbling in that orchestral piano in an almost bluesy style. Benedetti adopted a suitably sultry tone in this first movement, managing to be heard even against the fullest orchestral accompaniment.

The movements in the concerto are contiguous but clearly distinct. The first two and last two movements are punctuated by a jaw-dropping cadenza almost entirely consisting of double-stopping. Benedetti traversed this with astonishing assuredness, even calmly tweaking her tuning along the way. The cadenza concludes, startlingly, with a huge crash from the orchestra, which conductor Lahav Shani timed to perfection. The third movement is rather militaristic and Benedetti was visibly enjoying the orchestral mayhem going on around her. She also noticeably engaged with her orchestral colleagues, particularly the leader. Benedetti was in total command of this concerto, as were Shani and the orchestra. 

I remember the electrifying effect that Shani seemed to have when he made his debut with the orchestra last year in Prokofiev’s fifth symphony. Here again, in Brahms’s fourth symphony, that effect was in evidence. Conducted from memory, this was a staggeringly confident interpretation that elevated Brahms’s masterpiece way above any kind of routine performance. The orchestra was glorious, sounding on this occasion every bit the equal of the finest in Europe; from the firm foundations of the rich, deep double basses to the upper layer of voluptuous violins.

In the first movement, Shani ensured Brahms’s lines all flowed inevitably from one section of the orchestra to the next. Timpanist Antoine Siguré was an exciting presence throughout the work but his entry towards the end of the exposition (a nice touch by Brahms) was especially thrilling. In the second movement, Shani subtly intervened with a little rubato here and there, allowing the wind principals space to sing. Then, as the movement built towards its climax he drove the tempo forward most effectively, instead of holding back as many do.

Shani’s tempo interventions in the scherzo (reminiscent of those of his mentor, Daniel Barenboim) would perhaps be a little jarring on repeated listening, but in this live context they worked rather well. The last three chords of the movement seemed to electrify the air in the hall, raising expectations for the cataclysmic final movement. Shani and the orchestra did not disappoint us.

Earlier, the orchestra had been reduced in size for Haydn’s Symphony No 92. A batonless Shani conducted a cultured account in which all Haydn’s clever surprises, harmonic and rhythmic, were allowed to register. Phrasing was exquisitely sensitive though I sometimes longed for some rougher edges. I did appreciate the timpanist’s hard sticks in this repertoire, however. It was a fine performance to kick off a memorable concert.