Last night’s concert in the Usher Hall contained so many different strands, that it defies simple categorisation. One of a series of nine concerts in Scotland, its first objective was clearly to promote Miss Benedetti’s latest CD, The Silver Violin. This recording features tributes to many of the great composers who wrote film music for the silver screen, hence the title. A lavish and expensive tour brochure, with lots of photographs of Miss Benedetti looking by turns glamorous, alluring, pensive and so on, served as programme. Another objective was clearly educational, as there was scope in the brochure to feature many of the schools, musical outreach programmes and charities that Miss Benedetti supports. On stage, she also afforded some budding local talent the chance to play alongside her.

Nicola Benedetti driving a car © Decca / Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti driving a car
© Decca / Simon Fowler

In addition, each half of the concert began with a short film. Part one related the reception accorded to Korngold in a post-war, largely unreconstructed and still unrepentantly anti-Semitic Austria. The film with which the second half began starred the members of the trio giving their take on the principal work of the evening, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor. Elements of the programme were unashamedly populist and if the age-range and response of the concert-goers are fit criteria, this is just what the public wanted. When the going got tougher in the Tchaikovsky, however, several people left early. So just how successful was the evening?

Let us deal with the “lollipops” first. They were played with sincerity and not too much sentimentality. More substantial among them was Ravel’s Tzigane. The unaccompanied violin opening was delivered with sizzling panache and unashamed virtuosity. The same was true of Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriciosso, in which even the quiet flourishes were played quietly, for once. But now we come to the fly in the ointment: after the introductory film had finished, the screen was kept live behind the performers. Therefore not only did we have Miss Benedetti on stage, we had her as a back projection, more akin to a rock concert or media event than a recital. The worst aspect was that the projection was not synchronised with her actual playing. There was a time-delay (digital decoder problems, maybe?), which meant that as she took a down-bow, the screen was still showing her previous up-bow. The effect was most disconcerting and totally unnecessary. I could only cope by closing my eyes.

This phenomenon would have blighted the second half in itself, but was made even worse! Inept camera work spotlighted members of the trio on the screen in a totally random way that bore little relation to the music. A sudden jerk would pan dizzyingly onto Miss Benedetti adjusting her shoulder rest, the cellist tightening his bow or the pianist mopping his brow. This lent absolutely nothing to the performance, which was sensational.

There is usually an intimacy about chamber music that informs even public concerts; as members of the audience, we are permitted to eavesdrop on a private conversation. In the case of Tchaikovsky's trio, forget it. A mature symphonist, the composer was convinced that his talents lay elsewhere than in the piano trio. He wanted big canvasses and big sounds. A year after refusing a commission which he felt was so inimical to his nature, Tchaikovsky began work. The catalyst was the death of Nicolay Rubinstein, with whom Tchaikovsky had enjoyed a chequered but influential relationship. Madame von Meck was about to have her wish fulfilled.

The opening “Pezzo elegiaco” is essentially a funeral march in memory of the dead Rubinstein, “the Great Artist” of the title, which cellist Leonard Elschenbroich began in wonderfully dark, sombre tones. He is an instrumentalist of great talent and delicacy, never over-playing, sounding powerful but always with something in reserve. The ensemble playing in the first movement was as you would expect from three such accomplished musicians. The second movement, falling as it does into two parts, takes the form a theme and variations and calls for the maintenance of astonishing energy levels for over half an hour. The variations make ever more fearsome technical demands on the players. Pianist Alexei Grynyuk wrung volumes of sound from the piano that made no concession to niceties of balance: this is music that is not meant for the drawing room but for the auditorium. Tchaikovsky is also giving us a tour de force in musical forms and melodic inventiveness. This is partly rooted in Slavonic dance as well as more classical forms, such as the fugal ninth variation. The glorious conclusion to the work, just before the final, wistful reprise of the opening theme, had the three musicians giving their all in total abandonment to the music.

With the final work and the Ravel, the evening reached its musical high points. If the lure of popular artists and popular programmes reaches an unfamiliar audience and persuades them to step through the doors, that can only be a plus. When technological difficulties (in the name of “showbiz”?) intrude upon the enjoyment, however, then maybe it is time to rethink.

***11