Live review – Nicola Benedetti, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård: Polska Scotland opening concert

nicola-benedetti-rsno

Nicola Benedetti (violin, photo by Martin Shields), Royal Scottish National Orchestra Thomas Søndergård

RSNO Studio, Glasgow
Broadcast Friday 16 April 2021, available online until Friday 30 July 2021

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Szymanowski Violin Concerto no.1 Op.35 (1922)
Panufnik Sinfonia Sacra (Symphony no.3) (1964)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The first concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Polska Scotland season provided a tempting mix of 20th century pieces. The season is exploring connections between the two countries, and watching the accompanying video (at the bottom of this page) reveals a number of interesting and pertinent connections, not least in the orchestra itself.

The choice of repertoire here was refreshing, too. Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no.1 is more of a regular repertoire piece these days, but the same could certainly not be said of the inclusions from Mieczysław Weinberg, the Polish composer who found his way to Moscow in the 1940s, and Andrzej Panufnik, who fled Warsaw for London ten years later.

Weinberg’s parents moved to Poland from Moldova in 1916, and this concert began with the composer’s Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, exploring the heritage of his parents through the development of contrasting folk tunes. In this way he was following the lead of folk-based pieces for orchestra from the likes of Kodály, Enescu and Bartók, relishing the chance to project and develop the music of their home countries through the concert hall.

The RSNO strings were appropriately deadpan at the start, their cold and muted contributions expertly controlled and matched by suitable lighting in the hall. The woodwind gave heartfelt, soulful contributions, as did the orchestra leader, violinist Sharon Roffman, and these led to thrills and spills as the RSNO powered through the faster sections, urged on by Thomas Søndergård.

Polska-scotland

Nicola Benedetti was the soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no.1, a piece she started to play at the age of 16. Having lived with it for approximately the same length of time, she noted the increased popularity of the piece – and talked through how conductor Sondergaard’s vision of the music was slower than hers, giving her a renewed perspective.

The violin emerged rather magically from the brief but colourful orchestral introduction and dominated almost throughout, rich of tone and with extremely secure intonation. The vivid colours were an overriding feature of this performance, Søndergård achieving a sound balance between soloist and orchestra, but within the ensemble he probed the deeper shades of Szymanowski’s lyrical writing. Benedetti was passionate and driven, the searing high notes carrying easily above the orchestra and then doing their own work in ardent outpouring of the complex cadenza. Søndergård gave the piece more room than it normally receives, but this was to its benefit – and the capricious ending was beautifully weighted.

First violinist Jane Reid then recounted a Polish tour for the orchestra in 1978, which opened with Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra, receiving its first performance in the country. It was a daring choice from conductor Sir Alexander Gibson, given the composer’s departure for London in 1954, but Reid’s vivid account spoke of tears in the Warsaw audience. Indeed, it is hard to understand why the piece is not performed more today – given the Weinberg revival of late, the music of Panufnik is just as deserving.

This performance from the RSNO was intensely moving. The powerful opening fanfares of Vision I from the brass were razor sharp, and cut to an equally heartfelt Vision II from the strings, icy cold music of solemn countenance. This was blown apart by Vision III, where driven percussion gave way to onrushing strings the surging brass in music of dissonance and disquiet. The contrast with the final Hymn was even greater, the strings united again in a cold chorale, but gradually the music thawed and grew in power.

Sondergård expertly marshalled this section and its steady build, taking a broad tempo but controlling the unwavering intensity of Panufnik’s writing. The brass fanfares were resolute, but the final statement of the hymn had great resolve, an ultimately triumphant end – even if the dissonances remained, defiant to the finish.

This was a superb start to a season which promises much, with works to come from Lutosławski, Bacewicz and more Szymanowski – Nicola Benedetti will return to play his Violin Concerto no.2. On this evidence, all the online concerts are highly recommended.

You can watch the concert on the Royal Scottish National Orchestra website here

For more information on the Royal Scottish National Orchestra digital season, you can visit their website here

Wigmore Mondays – Nicola Benedetti & Alexei Grynyuk in late sonatas by Beethoven & Brahms

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Nicola Benedetti (violin, above), Alexei Grynyuk (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 29 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b071cl1c

Available until 29 March

alexei-grynyuk

What’s the music?

Beethoven – Violin Sonata in G major, Op.96 (1812) (28 minutes)

Brahms – Violin Sonata no.2 in A major, Op.100 (1886) (23 minutes)

Spotify

Nicola Benedetti and Alexei Grynyuk have not yet recorded this music, but other versions can be accessed via the playlist below, in case you can’t get to the broadcast:

About the music

Beethoven’s tenth and last published violin sonata sits on its own in his output, a decade after than the composer’s previous work in the form. It is dedicated to the same ‘Archduke’ (Rudolph of Austria) for whom Beethoven wrote his famous B flat major piano trio, also published in 1812. Beethoven supposedly wrote it in a slightly easier style, as the violinist Pierre Rode – who was performing the piece with the Archduke playing piano – was not as skilful as he once was. The G major piece makes allowances, then – but not in a way that you would ever know from listening! It is unusually tranquil, and has instances of the timeless music Beethoven was to find in the slower movements of his late works.

There are no such concessions to technical ability from Brahms, who wrote the second of his three violin sonatas while on holiday by Lake Thun, Switzerland. This is however a relatively late work, and although Brahms has found and established his style the piece still carries some of the pressures of writing for Joseph Joachim. Its lyrical and tuneful nature have helped make it one of the composer’s most popular pieces of chamber music – and like the Beethoven it has a largely sunny outlook.

Performance verdict

A nice combination of two violin sonatas that seemed ideally suited to a bright Spring lunchtime – and how refreshing to hear young artists such as Benedetti and Grynyuk take on two later works like this.

The Beethoven was lovely, performed in a spirit of enjoyment where the violin and piano really were equals. Benedetti’s tone, slightly sweet, was ideal, while Grynyuk proved a very sensitive pianist, with some lightly brushed contributions that made sense of Beethoven’s unusual contentment.

The same mood infused the Brahms sonata, though here there was a greater sense of purpose, as the first movement, having begun relatively slowly, surged through to a much more animated development section. The finale was also notable for revealing some of the shadows that became a greater part of Brahms’s late works – but overall the feeling was one of positivity, celebrating the composer’s good spirits and warm lyricism in this work.

What should I listen out for?

Beethoven

1:58 – as the piece begins there is an immediate feeling of contentment, and although the opening idea is quite innocuous it is distinctive, with its use of the trill ornament. The piano introduces an airy second theme at 3:10, which the violin soon takes up. The mood is summery, and even a bit drowsy. The first section is repeated again at 4:40. Beethoven then develops his ideas fluently before we hear the main tune once again at 8:31, shared this time by the violin and piano. The balmy warmth continues until the end.

13:12 – the second movement is slow, marked Adagio espressivo, and has that kind of heavenly timelessness often found in later period Beethoven. It has a spacious introduction from the piano and is if anything even more relaxed than the first movement. It operates at a similar tempo and mood to the slow movement from the Emperor piano concerto. From around 14:35 the violin lines become quiet and bare, Benedetti using little vibrato, but the warmth does not take long to return.

19: 19 – the third movement, a Scherzo, is short, and if you blink you’ll miss it! Its first idea is once again light of touch, and though there is a heavier trio section it is not at all long before the minor key asserts itself again.

21:48 – the final movement also has a light touch, with a Haydn simplicity, and is particularly rich in the lower register and strong in the continuous, lower runs. The slower music is a delight, still airy and relatively carefree. There is then a quicker, invigorating run to the end.

Brahms

32:37 – one of Brahms’s most celebrated tunes opens this piece, a lovely outpouring of good feeling. It is quite slow and quiet to begin with but grows into a full blooded interpretation as the theme is developed further. There is greater affection here than in much of Brahms’s output.

42:07 – this is definitely the lighter side of Brahms, with a tender slow movement that segues into a more jaunty Scherzo section (43:32), marked by tumbling triplets in the piano part. The slow movement music follows again at a safe distance (44:38) – and then once again the scherzo music trips along (46:43), this time with plucking from the violin.

49:28 – in the last movement we get the warmth of the violin’s lower register, taking the ‘grazioso’ marking in to account. There are though some shadows that the listener might sense occasionally, the odd harmonic turn towards the dark side that never lasts too long but is there nonetheless.

Encore

54:35 – a substantial encore from Benedetti and Grynyuk, and a very different mood in the exotic and intense Myth no.3 by Polish composer Szymanowski.

Further listening

At the bottom of the playlist you will find some further suggestions for violin and piano in the form of sonatas by Schumann – Brahms’ friend, of course – with his Violin Sonata no.1 – and César Franck, whose own Violin Sonata shares the same key and mood as Brahms’s Second. Finally some shorter pieces by Schumann for solo instrument and piano – the joyous Adagio and Allegro and the 5 Pieces in Folk Style, arranged here for cello and piano. Each will put you in a good mood!

Meanwhile if the Szymanowski appeals, Nicola Benedetti has recorded his Violin Concerto no.1: