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Nicola Benedetti Plays Szymanowski

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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)
Karol Szymanowski was born in a place that used to be in Poland but is today in the territory of Ukraine. We haven't had many opportunities in recent memory to hear much of his music. I heard a wonderful piece for violin and piano last fall, at the recital by my friend Sarah Geller. Pianist Piotr Anderszewski had announced that he would play some Szymanowski in his recital at the National Gallery last month, but he opted for Beethoven instead. I first heard about the young Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti about a year ago, when I read an article by Jessica Duchen. Benedetti won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2004, at the age of 16. Winning that prize was the key to her new contract with Deutsche Grammophon, for six recordings at the staggering salary of £1 million. The piece that won her that award was Szymanowski's first violin concerto, composed in 1915 and 1916. We have her teacher, Maciej Rakowski, to thank for introducing her to the piece, after she left the Menuhin School to study violin with him privately.

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.

Zeus kidnaps the Trojan boy Ganymede, Penthesilea Painter, Museo Nazionale FerraraA 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 colonnades
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.
Although 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.

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.

Nicola Benedetti, b. 1987, and her violin, made in Venice by Pietro Guarneri, 1751Using 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.


jfl said...

"I do not think that Benedetti has quite the same talent as some of the other young violinists of her generation"

Any violinist I know will attest you superb ears: She ain't as good as many other young violinists of her generation. I'm glad to read it here, too. But that's not to keep us from thanking her for bringing the Szymanowski to people's attention.

jfl said...

p.s. what I MEANT to say: DG understands the power of the notoriously biased British music press.

Garth Trinkl said...

For her first recording with Deutsche Grammophon ...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....

For what its worth, this passage reminds me of when George Solti invited Dresden-born German conductor Michael Gielen to conduct the Chicago Symphony, in about 1970 or 71, Gielen had to think of something that might attract special critical attention, given Solti's own large repertoire, and his own desire to avoid Mahler and the Schoenberg school for which he was best known.

He asked whether he could program Scriabin's Symphony #3, the Divine Poem, and he was given the go aheard to program this masterpiece; which he then learned especially for the occasion.

Gielen wasn't overly impressed by Scriabin's earlier orchestral writing, which he thought lacked craftsmanship, but he highly admired this late orchestral work.

I would be interesting for audiences, in my view, if the next conductor of the NSO would include some of the masterpieces of Scriabin or Szymanowski, along with a wider survey of modernist masterpieces from the first half of last century, many of which have never been performed in Washington. (Some of the local choruses have done the sublime Szymanowski Stabat Mater).

Charles T. Downey said...

Jens and Garth, thanks for the comments. It's true that the principal attraction of this disc is the repertory more than Benedetti's playing. She plays just fine.