Review: Sydney Opera House Recital ★★★★☆

Sydney Opera House – Utzon Room

Peter McCallum 

It was strange but moving to hear a young musician in the springtime of her life play the autumnal slow movement of Elgar’s Violin Sonata with such vivid and intense beauty.

Nicola Benedetti plays musical phrases with a natural instinct for shape and contour, so that one almost forgets the sinewy golden sound and immaculate polish. Her concentration on the natural cadence and line of each utterance combines form and feeling with deeply human expression, drawing the listener compellingly into the musical narrative. This was ideal for the passionate turbulence of Elgar’s first movement, while in the finale she clung to the sustained notes of the climax with valedictory tenacity. But it was the slow movement, where Elgar alternates Edwardian poise and coyness in the outer sections with an emotionally sweeping central section that she and pianist Alexei Grynyuk provided the performance’s most profound moments.

The program had opened with another E minor Sonata by Mozart, K 304, in which Benedetti had shown similar persuasiveness in moulding musical shapes, although the piano didn’t always match it and was slightly over-dominant in the low-ceilinged space of the Utzon Room. The stylistic approach was more even and well-matched between the players in the fascinating shades of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Opus 80 as it moves from dark intricate textures to moments of luminosity and, later, savagery.

After setting a tone of heavy menacing struggle for the main part of the first moment, Benedetti and Grynyuk created a magical moment of transformation at the close of the first movement with the piano drawing sustained colours from a chorale-like theme at the upper reaches of the piano while the violin creates rapid swirling flickering passages beneath. In the second movement they created between the instruments a hammered implacable dialogue of powerful, at times brutal, force. The slow movement returns to delicately colour textures and telling mutations, before a finale of unbridled rhythmic exuberance and virtuosic brilliance.

This series has brought to Sydney some of the world’s most talented young musicians, suggesting music not only has a future, but an exciting one.