Review: Seen and Heard International UK Tour, ‘Italy and the Four Seasons’ The Royal Albert Hall, London
That what was basically a chamber music concert could fill the Royal Albert Hall was credit to the drawing power of one of the finest young violinists of this generation, Nicola Benedetti. The playing of an accomplished ensemble – until the school children were involved there was never more than 11 musicians on stage – held everyone in the hall transfixed by their virtuosity. A remarkable thing was that there were many primary school-age children in the audience around me and all were extremely attentive and engaged by the music. Hopefully they will not ‘grow out of it’. The future of classical music is in safe hands with someone like Nicola Benedetti who seems able to inspire young people to a lifelong passion through music’s ability to inspire, entertain, intrigue, sometimes bemuse, but nearly always lift the human spirit.
I will not soon forget Italy and The Four Seasons but it was a very low-key event and rather like an inflated lunchtime concert that you might encounter at somewhere smaller than the Royal Albert Hall or any of the other venues on Nicola Benedetti’s 11-date UK tour. Benedetti has explained the idea behind the music we heard as follows: ‘I am so looking forward to touring this incredible programme around the great halls of the UK and Ireland. Italy’s place in the cultural landscape of Europe is unparalleled. This is reason enough for it to be a central theme for this tour but my own personal heritage gives it extra poignancy for me.’
It was clear from this performance that Nicola Benedetti is keen to stick to her classical roots and not go down the path of more flamboyant and ‘middle of the road’ superstar-violinists such as Nigel Kennedy … to name just one. Throughout this concert she was a team player – a virtuoso amongst virtuosi. And this was despite the 12 photos of her in the programme and only one thumbnail of her cellist partner Leonard Elschenbroich (he must have been pleased) and none of the rest of the musicians. This was in no way a Nicola Benedetti recital because the musicians were integral to the pieces we heard and I was left wishing that we could have heard one complete work (The Four Seasons) and a few shorter works including a couple of solos from Nicola herself.
Nevertheless it was wonderful music-making … the smoothest of ‘smooth classics’ that I typically hear on Classic FM late at night driving back from London. These works are not ones I would normally listen to and certainly have never heard live in concert. Published in 1725 The Four Seasons are basically tone poems and in the original manuscript each of the four concertos of which it is made up of were prefaced by a sonnet whereby Vivaldi provided instructions, such as, ‘The barking dog’ (in the second movement of ‘Spring’), ‘Languor caused by the heat’ (in the first movement of ‘Summer’), and ‘the drunkards have fallen asleep’ (in the second movement of ‘Autumn’). What Nicola Benedetti and her companions did was to transcend The Four Seasons as the ‘musical wallpaper’ it has become and paint each individual scene and season splendidly. There was some remarkable baroque playing from the obviously very able musicians and Elizabeth Kenny’s lute-playing was a particularly important addition to the other strings. The playing was remarkable for its restraint even in the fastest music and throughout a highlight was the gossamer-like string textures of all concerned but especially, of course, Benedetti’s violin and Elschenbroich’s cello.
Nicola Benedetti’s commitment to musical education was highlighted by her welcoming Truda White, the CEO of MISST (part of The Andrew Lloyd Webber Programme which provides musical instruments to schools in disadvantaged areas) who brought with her 11 students to perform a short movement from Vivaldi’s G major concerto. It is an admirable scheme and again gave great hope for the future of classical music.
After an interval Mark-Anthony Turnage had written a new work for Benedetti and Elschenbroich – Duetti d’Amore. It has five brief sections and is based on relationships and particularly their own on-going one. (I wonder how easy it would be to play if they had just had a row?) Some passages were rather like a lament and were quite haunting, others rather tempestuous but surprisingly – despite some playful to-ing and fro-ing between the violin and cello – they don’t seem to have much fun, at least, as far as Turnage is concerned.
Benedetti and Elschenbroich were joined by four additional string players to play the original sextet version of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. When the composer revised the work in 1891 he wrote to his brother Modest – and not being very modest himself – ‘What a sextet – and what a fugue at the end – a total delight! It is dreadful how pleased I am with myself. I am embarrassed not by any lack of ideas, but by the novelty of the form!’ Souvenir de Florence has a claim to be Tchaikovsky’s strongest chamber work, full of melodic passion aroused in him by a sojourn to Italy. The accomplished players comprising the sextet – led by the brilliance of Nicola Benedetti – moved effortlessly from the baroque of the Vivaldi to the Romantic lyricism and symphonic sweep of Tchaikovsky. The ensemble’s perfect balance, fluidity and clarity in the intricacies of the Souvenir de Florence was beyond reproach. The depth of feeling Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich brought to the Adagio cantabile (second movement) revealed more about their partnership than Turnage achieved.