Initially I had thought the marketing for this concert to be rather overdone. The prospect of the excellent City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra playing Richard Strauss’s awe-inspiring and monumental Ein Heldenleben was barely visible in the small print. Benedetti’s countenance graced the advertising, the programme cover, the website and hers was the only name on the ticket other than Tchaikovsky. Strauss, for all his heroic effort, had been reduced to a programme filler, and poor old Rimsky-Korsakov hardly got a mention at all. The pressure was on for Benedetti to live up to the expectations that had been set for her by the marketing department, and for conductor Omer Meir Wellber to deliver up something special with Strauss.

Nicola Benedetti © Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler
Wellber got off to a confident start with The Tsar’s Bride: Overture by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He controlled the orchestra with a particularly physical conducting style, encouraging the violins to indulge in the overstated romanticism of the main melody with large circulating sweeps of his arms, hunching his back and bending at the knee to bring the woodwind down to a pianissimo, squaring his shoulders and protruding his chest to bring out the pomp and power of the brass. The overture itself is a pleasant one, with plenty of contrast between the sections and a rather subdued ending. Wellber did well to balance these contrasts, making the most of the dynamics and ensuring all of the instrumentation was clearly audible even during the loudest passages. It was going to be interesting to see how his emphatic physical style would suit the Strauss.

Indeed, It turned out that Strauss’s Ein HeldenlebenOp.40, was a good match for him. As a symphonic poem it requires a massive orchestral sound to depict the most unabashed statements of heroic supremacy, and the almost comically mocking moments of ridicule in the motifs of the hero’s adversaries. The huge orchestra, including nine horns, five trumpets, an assortment of other brass, five percussionists, two harps, woodwind and strings galore, presents a happy problem of control. It needs a conductor who can take charge, to keep the balance and not let the magnitude of the orchestration dominate the subtlety of interpretation. Wellber's physically exuberant conducting style allowed him to state his interpretation to the orchestra with absolute clarity and the result was coherent musical imagery from beginning to end.

Ein Heldenleben can be an assault on the senses at times, there being so much going on and a great deal of it very loud. But Wellber had the measure of it. Strauss’s egotistical motif of himself as a Nietzschean-hero was robust and clear. The wonderful solo playing of the principal violin in portraying the feminine voice of Strauss’s wife Pauline delivered a touch of true tenderness. But the memorable part for me was the battle, with off-stage brass, driving percussion and booming timpani, enveloping the hall into a cacophony of fearsome tension. The CBSO proved once again that they can take on the big symphonic works and smash them.

Strauss’s work was performed in the second half of the concert. The pinnacle of the evening, however, came in the first half with Nicola Benedetti's performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35. My earlier misgivings on the hyperbole bestowed on Nicola Benedetti had been misplaced. This young woman not only met the expectations created by the marketing team, she exceeded them and then some with a truly mesmerising and absorbing solo performance. Her interpretation of the Tchaikovsky's concerto, one of only three works he wrote for violin and orchestra, was nothing short of sublime. 

The concerto, deemed unplayable by the violinist Leopold Auer to whom the composer initially presented it, is a technical challenge for any virtuoso. Yet Benedetti is so masterful on her instrument that the immense technique the concerto demands seemed as natural to her as breathing. But this was not a performance to marvel at her technical brilliance. It was that these demands were never the slightest distraction from her delivery of the narrative.

That narrative was completely at odds with the Strauss that was to follow. If Ein Heldenleben is about strident epic (and somewhat narcissistic) heroism, Tchaikovsky’s concerto explores human warmth and companionship. The main theme of the Allegro moderato – moderato assai is lyrical and enchanting. Benedetti’s interpretation was warm and intimate, and her cadenza transfixed with tonal depths and glints of light that outshone even the glittering shimmer of her sparkling indigo gown. The Canzonetta: andante was beguiling in its beauty. Once Benedetti had drawn us into the character of the concerto she led us a-dance in a folk theme that conjured up images of convivial Russian village life. This was a masterful and memorable performance and clearly, on this occasion, the Benedetti-hype was wholly justified.