Review: Sydney Opera House Recital ★★★★☆ 20.02.2015

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.

Review: Forms and Volumes Spoken at Gardner: 20.02.2015

The Boston Musical Intelligencer

Gardner Museum recital: Review


It is difficult to enter the Gardner Museum without heightened anticipation: the spatial aesthetics compel you deeply to consider internal and external forms and volumes. The Gardner’s welcoming energy extends to its unapologetically cubical Calderwood Hall. World-renowned virtuosi Nicola Benedetti, violin, and Alexis Grynyuk capitalized on this intimate and inventive space, giving structurally aware and timbrally divine performances of some of the canon’s best sonatas for violin and piano. This concert transcended the players’ virtuosity; their skill ultimately pointed to mysticism beyond themselves shared through performances of monumental works.

Barely pausing after acknowledging the audience, they went steadily to task on the famous unison introduction of Mozart’s Sonata No. 28 in E Minor for Pianoforte and Violin, K304 (1778). The duo fully engaged each other and the audience, moving freely, though precisely, through the music. Seated at eye level with the performers, I could count the folds on Grynuk’s forehead, forming as he furrowed for dissonances.

Although both have vibrant solo careers, the pair’s impeccable synchronization spoke to their history of performing together. The duo shared the musical spotlight flawlessly, Benedetti’s tone shifting all the time, to lessen or heighten her blending with the piano: all for the sake of structural clarity.

Nonetheless, their physical personalities seemed at odds with their attire. Benedetti in a black, floor-length dress with pictorial flowers, moved gracefully, if not conservatively, while Grynuk in more standard concert attire assumed elaborate facial gestures and often repositioned his upper body at the keyboard. Most notably, he often fixed his gaze upwards in a pose of delicate sensuousness, if not spirituality. Though an ostensibly authentic, as with the rest of his gestures, it often distracted from the wonderful sound emanting from his controlled and sensitive touch.

My favorite moment of the concert came in the Tempo di Menuetto second movement of K.304, a wonderful relaxation from to the vibrancy of the first movement. Towards the beginning, Grynyuk’s wonderful intimate trill seemed to grow and shrink with the control and variety of sound expected from a bowed instrument. Benedetti at all times, featured such timbral tastefulness and agility, dissolving towards niente between and within phrases, granting melodic fragments a delicate volatility. Benedetti perfectly captured the beautiful simplicity of chordal resolutions, in a way that words fail to communicate. The affective variety in the two movements somehow balanced, but suggested an equilibrium that Elgar’s effusive Romantic totally upheaved.

The fuller engagement of the instruments’ sonic possibilities in Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E Minor, Op 82 (1918), cast the Mozart in an austere light. Displays of power including wider and more rapid shifting of range, volume, and textures, took on from where I sat close to the players, an entirely different character than they would in most halls or recordings; they could be felt.

Benedetti widened her timbral choices, employing a grittier sound (which helped balance the piano) by placing her bow closer to the bridge. Unfortunately, the piano felt a little too loud for this lavishness. Though the piano never covered the violins entirely, at times the brute power of the full-size lidless grand drowned the Benedetti’s intimate details.

Small details aside, the duo wonderfully swam with Elgar’s Romantic flow, at times pulsing within it, at times soaring over it, though the performance at times left me needing air, as I followed closely through the harmonically colorful, if not intellectually adventurous sequences.

The Romance: Andante second movement brought a fresh playfulness, especially in a repeated trading off of an arpeggio: pizzicato on violin, with a secco reiteration in the piano. Through timbral and time-taking sensibility, the performers brought this difference in character to life. A more abstract form of disunity came out here, with more rhythmic suspensions between the players. The Allegro non troppo third movement brought us to the fullest voluptuousness yet as the performers reveled Elgar’s meandering melodies with attention to all the colorful melodic notes. Again, the piano teetered on the edge of overwhelming the space, but the performers spoke so clearly that these matters did not interfere in a significant way.

Alexei Grynyuk looks upward (file photo)

Alexei Grynyuk looks upward (file photo)

After a brief intermission the pair came back with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano, Op, 47, “Kreutzer.” This performance pristinely projected Beethoven’s mastery of musical elements. For instance, this work contained more variety to the textures and different incarnations of the violin-piano relationship. However, Beethoven’s command over varieties of form shouldn’t be confused with Elgar’s romantic energies: these contrasts did not didn’t have such expressive volatility, though they thoroughly elucidated Beethoven’s narrative forms by underlined complex interrelationships. The duo shined throughout this long work, compassionately, highlighting all the surprises, especially the quiet moments, and even poignant silences at structurally significant moments.

It was truly a privilege to bask in Benedetti’s and Grynyuk’s radiant sensibilities. They transformed the concert space into a sonic oasis of beauty and narrative sealed from the rest of the world, even if only for a couple hours on an ephemeral Sunday afternoon deep in the snowy winter.

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