Having discovered and fallen in love with the music of Szymanowski over 30 years ago and in particular the two violin concertos, to have the opportunity to hear both back to back was indeed a dream come true. In the 1980s the only way the curious listener could experience Szymanowski’s work was through crude but passionate Polish performances on LP. Concert performances in the UK were virtually non-existent. It was mostly thanks to the pioneering advocacy of Simon Rattle in Birmingham that this great composer’s work finally found a concert footing outside Poland. Nicola Benedetti also revealed the composer to a wider audience by choosing to play the Violin Concerto no. 1 in her winning performance in the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year. She has continued to perform this concerto and more recently has added the Second to her repertoire.

Nicola Benedetti © Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler

The concert kicked off with an exquisite performance of Debussy’s evergreen Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune by a clearly inspired London Philharmonic Orchestra with Vladimir Jurowski at the helm. The quality of woodwind playing was the highlight with the rich but lean strings a perfectly comfortable bed upon which to luxuriate.

In the Szymanowski that followed, this inspiration took full flight. Benedetti proved to be ideal partner in the First, finding all the elements of this structurally complex piece at her fingertips. Her playing was refined and accurate in the stratospheric passages, balanced by a gutsy earthiness when called for and supreme virtuosity in the cadenza. Most importantly she was clearly following the heartbeat of the concerto, which is a difficult and illusive work to bring off. Jurowski and the LPO were also completely in tune with Benedetti’s vision, with extraordinary playing which at no point overshadowed or swamped the soloist.

Written at the end of Szymanowski’s career in 1933, the Second replaces the impressionistic, Straussian style, with something leaner and more Bartókian, while nevertheless maintaining that individual sense of ecstasy and spontaneity. In many ways it is a more coherent and accessible work than its predecessor, replacing that work's magical logic with something more earthbound, but equally satisfying. Benedetti again found the perfect balance between refinement and strength, as well as exercising great stamina and concentration, well supported by Jurowski and the LPO. A truly brilliant piece of programming, spectacularly brought off by all concerned.

It was hard to imagine anything else could follow this uplifting experience, but another piece of clever programming found the answer in the Suite from Bartók’s dark and sensual ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. Where Debussy was an ideal prelude to the first Szymanowski concerto, Bartók proved to be a perfect postlude to the second. This was not a wild risk-taking performance, but one looking for the depths of sad desperation and cruelty in the work. In the frenzied finale, the excitement was overwhelming through its virtuosity and cold precision.

*****