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Karol Szymanowski, Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra (op. 35), Nicola Benedetti, London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding (released on April 4, 2006)
For her first recording with Deutsche Grammophon (recently released in the United States), she has set down that concerto, and what a delight it has been to discover it. Szymanowski was in his exotic phase, listening to a lot of Scriabin, Debussy, and Ravel. He based the concerto on a program drawn from Tadeusz Micinski's poem May Nights. This was the period of Szymanowski's sexual awakening, after visits as a (homo)sexual tourist to North Africa with a friend. Shortly after he composed this concerto, he wrote his novel Ephebos, now lost except for a fragment. He then met the 15-year-old Russian boy Boris Kochno, who became temporarily the realization of his pederastic fantasy, only to have him be taken up by Sergei Diaghilev, who made the young man his secretary in Paris.
A bold move, then, for Benedetti to pin her hopes to this relatively unknown concerto, definitely not one of the same old virtuosic barn-burners favored by most competitors. I am thankful for the sequence of events that brought her performance to my ears. It is a series of exotic vignettes, washed in warm Mediterranean colors, cut from the same Matisse-patterned cloth we are hearing in Stravinsky and Ravel around this time. There is the sheen of the harp, fluttering bird calls in the winds, the tinkle of metallic percussion and celesta like Anatolian jewelry. The liner notes quote a section of the inspiring poem, May Nights:
Once I wandered through these colonnadesAlthough those selected lines are ambiguous as to the gender of the young bodies admired, Szymanowski was likely recalling his travels in less inhibited countries along the Mediterranean basin. He wrote later that one of his inspirations for the concerto was happening to look through his photographs from the trips to Sicily and North Africa.
Created by Abderraham for his beloved
In an amethyst night of Sheherezade
With talismans burning in the heavens
Pan is playing bagpipes to dancing Ephemerids in an oak grove
While the eternally young and beautiful weave together in love.
Szymanowski composed this concerto with the advice of the violinist Pawel Kochanski, to whom the work is dedicated and whose cadenza Nicola Benedetti plays (although he was not able to premiere the work as Szymanowski wished). Benedetti's playing is radiant, on her 1751 Petrus Guarnerius violin from Venice, and the London Symphony under Daniel Harding clothes her sinewy, lush, often languid solos in a sonic cloak of many colors. If Benedetti's violin solo is the Tunisian Ganymede of Szymanowski's fantasies, she is both shy and elusive and energetically dancing. Her E string playing, in particular, even in very soft passages, is remarkably well placed.
Using this exotic work as a foundation, Benedetti has placed it at the head of a program of similar works, like Saint-Saëns' Havanaise, op. 83 (Cuba), Chausson's Poème, op. 25, and Massenet's Méditation from Thaïs (Egypt, by way of Paris). They are all lovely listening but it is the Szymanowski that stands out above them. In a touching gesture to her younger admirers, Benedetti has included a "performance track" of the orchestral part of the Méditation, so that aspiring violinists can play along themselves. They can even download their own violin part at Benedetti's Web site. For that reason among many, this CD would make an excellent gift to that young violinist in your life. Finally, she rounds out her program with two pieces created especially for her. Julian Reynolds's orchestration of Contemplation (Heifetz's arrangement of the Brahms song Wie Melodien zieht es mir) is a lovely thing, until now not recorded, evoking beautifully the poem that Brahms set (and which I find myself missing in this version). She is also the first to record John Tavener's Fragment for the Virgin, a piece the composer wrote for and dedicated to her. For much of the piece her enigmatic solo violin part is shadowed by a wreath of string dissonance in heterophony. It's pretty and catches the ear.
I do not think that Benedetti has quite the same talent as some of the other young violinists of her generation (I am much more impressed by Julia Fischer, for example), but she has great promise so let's give her time. However, I have enjoyed listening to this album very much, and I will continue to do so, mostly for that Szymanowski concerto. Nicola Benedetti's second recording, with James MacMillan conducting the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, combines Mendelssohn's violin concerto with music by Mozart and MacMillan (the Scottish composer, whose music I admire, and who also appears to be taken with Benedetti as Tavener is). It was released this past week in Europe. We'll be watching for it at Ionarts.