Programming an evening of favourites is always a double-edged sword: either it serves as an opportunity to marvel at the alleged well known music and rediscover exactly why it has survived over the centuries (which amazingly tends to come as a surprise, as if we had missed something essential before) or it somehow doesn’t live up to the expectations and stays pretty much in an unemotional two-dimensional universe. There is a third way when, somewhat bizarrely, you get a bit of both worlds juxtaposed, as if hearing two different realities intertwined. This is what happened in Madrid this evening.

Nicola Benedetti © Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler

In the first bars of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 3, the initial descending scale was rather hesitant. Initially, rhythmic accuracy proved evasive too. However, there was an interesting dynamic proposition, which turned out to be the most remarkable characteristic of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra which, when paired with the increased accuracy witnessed later, that made the evening most satisfying. 

Opening bars aside, the orchestra distilled energy and enjoyment, doing justice to Beethoven’s score. Much of this was due to Julian Kuerti, whose attentive conducting drew the best from every single musician. This was particularly the case in Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor, where the cellos played the theme in the second movement with care and beauty, while the woodwinds, especially the oboe, reminded the audience of the astonishing orchestration in this symphony. The transition from C minor to C major was another high point, and was the place where the excellent brass section sounded at their most balanced.

Between these two Beethoven works, Nicola Benedetti played Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Full disclosure here: there are few things in life I find more thrilling than watching a musician jump off a cliff fearlessly, knowing that what lies ahead is a near-impossible task. This concerto is so ruthless that it is nearly impossible to get it entirely right, and very easy for it go horribly wrong. Benedetti knows this concerto inside out, having played it in halls around the world and recorded its third movement less than a year ago. She clearly thrills on the adrenalin it triggers. Overall, hers was a commendable performance, one that enabled her to show us many excellent qualities: diabolically agile fingering, mastery of the melodic line master, the wittily delivered cadenza. The orchestra had no choice but to follow her runaway violin, and follow they did, showing that the initial lack of accuracy was a glitch rather than a trait.

Benedetti is young and hopefully has a long career before her. It will be interesting to hear her playing of this concerto in 20 years time, when the edge of youth will have given way to more reflective playing. The audience who saw her this evening certainly wants her back many times.