Nicola Benedetti made her Washington debut on the Washington Performing Arts Society's Kreeger Series on Tuesday night, in the warm, comforting space of the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. In 2004, when she was only 16 years old, the Scottish violinist won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, an award that, probably along with her youthful good looks, netted her a contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Her first disc with that label pleased my ears largely because of the obscure, exotic first violin concerto by Karol Szymanowski, with which she won the BBC award. (Thanks to Laurence Vittes for the name-check in the March 2007 issue of Strings magazine, a quote attributed to "Charles T. Downey, writing on the influential Washington, D.C.-focused ionarts blog.") Her subsequent forays into concerto warhorse territory, including the Mendelssohn on her second disc -- the DG contract was for a half-dozen recordings -- and the Tchaikovsky, have been, not to be unkind, poorly received.
Szymanowski, Violin Concerto No. 1 (inter alia), N. Benedetti, London SO, D. Harding
Sadly her recital has confirmed that Benedetti is just not ready for this kind of limelight, that she should have rested on the BBC award laurels, taken more time to study, and allowed her interpretative faculties and technique to mature. Indisputably she has talent, although less so than some of the greater violinists of her generation. Tragically, she had no need to rush into a paying career because she was already wealthy, the daughter of a pharmaceuticals millionaire, a station in life that provided her with a 1751 Guarnerius violin to play. (She is now playing the Earl Spencer Stradivarius, made around 1712, a loan from banking executive Jonathan Moulds.)
It would be needlessly cruel to dwell on all the faults of this performance. Benedetti's tone on her new Strad can be lovely and rich, although the intonation was at times doleful, as in the octaves toward the end of the first movement of the Brahms second violin sonata (A major, op. 100), and the legato less than clean. When the composer gave her an arching melodic line, Benedetti generally knew what to do, but complicated, multiple-stop textures, as in Ysaÿe's G major sonata for unaccompanied violin (op. 27, no. 5), and short motifs that required fitting in with the overall texture left her perplexed. She has impressive technical chops, displayed in Ravel's Tzigane, but many parts of the package were just not ready for a program of this difficulty.
That is true not only technically but also interpretatively, as in the graveyard wind music of Prokofiev's first violin sonata (F minor, op. 80), which in both first and last movements had its high notes out of tune and nothing chilly or haunting about it (for the right way to do it, see Leila Josefowicz or Midori, but not so much Joshua Bell). The best parts of this recital were due to Benedetti's associate artist, Russian-born, London-based pianist Katya Apekisheva, whose admirable touch at the keyboard added some much-need finesse and color. Her Brahms was large-handed and ably voiced, alternately suave and somber, and her Prokofiev was appropriately jolting and brutal, especially in the jarring third movement.
Anne Midgette, Benedetti, In and Out Of Groove (Washington Post, February 5)
The next concert in the WPAS series will feature pianist Simone Dinnerstein (February 7, 2 pm) at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. It is already sold out, but we will have a full report next week.