Review: The Times BBC SO/Oramo at the Barbican ★★★★

Elgar’s Violin Concerto is a big beast in every respect: big in passions, technical requirements, interpretative challenges and, definitely not least, demands on the soloist’s stamina. Yehudi Menuhin famously recorded it, under the composer’s baton, at 16 — but that’s not to be recommended.

The concerto is generally believed to evoke a love affair that, for whatever reason, didn’t work out. Why it didn’t depends very much on who you think Elgar was writing about in the quotation he put on his score (“Herein is enshrined the soul of . . .”), but that’s not the point. What matters is that the soloist can bring some life experience, as well as terrific violin playing, to this epic work.

How wise of Nicola Benedetti, then, to wait until her early thirties to tackle Elgar. And in this gripping performance (the first time she has played the concerto in London), what a thrilling rush of passions she brought to it. With some interpretations you feel as if emotion is being recollected in a haze of nostalgia, regret, dejection or whatever. Not so here. After a slightly nervy beginning, this was life being lived in the moment and in its full tumble of complexity.

Maybe in the future Benedetti will veer towards a gentler, less pressurised approach here and there — in the first movement’s disarming second subject, for instance, or in the rhapsodic slow movement, or in that famous final cadenza accompanied by thrumming strings — but in some ways I hope not. Her full-blooded approach to Elgar reminds me of the great Ida Haendel’s, but with a much more assured technique. That’s saying a lot.

Having provided a robust and in places bombastic accompaniment to the Elgar, the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo tackled Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony in much the same heavy-handed spirit. Pity. The piece benefits from taut rhythms and lean textures that disclose the richness of its inner details. Oramo ploughed through as if oblivious to what lay under the surface.