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Nicola Benedetti In Over Her Head

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Szymanowski, Violin Concerto No. 1 (inter alia), N. Benedetti, London SO, D. Harding
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.

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.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Benedetti, In and Out Of Groove (Washington Post, February 5)
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Dear Critic,

To begin, several of the "facts" you mention are patently untrue. Firstly, she was not "already wealthy"; her father owns businesses which you have no way of deigning the profitability thereof. And quite what right you have to ally her father's hypothetical financial status with how you erroneously believe she should have led her life I do not know. Her career, which you use as the starting point for your review, bears no relevance to this whatsoever, and therefore neither does her playing. Are you saying that you would review her playing more favourably (or rather, less damningly) if she were an impoverished, ugly, and without two pennies to rub together, until UCJ came knocking enticingly on her door? When put in those terms I presume not, but the careless way that you condescendingly opine would suggest so.

Whenever you manage to mention something slightly better than awful, you do so in a tone that suggests pleasant surprise that she is capable of serendipitously creating anything redeeming whatsoever. And your evidence to substantiate your suggestion that the majority of others hold her in such low esteem is quite frankly pathetic. Isn't it a great fallacy to use criticism in national papers as an arbiter of musical excellence? I've become increasingly convinced that, since the demise of the Neville Cardus-style reviewing, critics are inclined to a pseudo-intellectual verbosity that bears almost no relation to the actual performance, with the prospective fee perhaps acknowledged by a few cursory glances at reality. Ironic, perhaps, how Prokofiev made the majority of his fortune from a critic defaming the premiere of a new orchestral work(Lieutenant Kije, I believe).

Let's face it, you had already decided how you were going to review this recital before you even turned up. You are a bigot; you hear what you wish to hear, and you write correspondingly. That you are so petty as to say "the best parts of this recital were due to the pianist" speaks volumes about your musical acumen: having played all these works as a pianist, I can unequivocally state that they (particularly the Prokofiev) sound utterly dire without a stellar lead from the violin at all times (not that Katya is anything less than an excellent pianist).

It is not the negative reviewing of a concert that I take issue with; it is the tone with which you do so, and the gratuitous comments not directly related to the recital (which you deliver in an ill-informed and slapdash manner), with which you imply that Nicola is a) technically incompetent, b) so anodyne as a musician that she can be eclipsed by the pianist in a movement with far greater contribution from the violin, and c) essentially, a glamour-hunting musical prostitute who lusted for fame and fortune when life offered her the luxury of studying and meditation. The suggestion of all of which I find extremely offensive, if merely as a fellow musician.

For my part, I don't think I've ever met anyone quite as gifted as Nicola, or who has ever moved me quite as much (and yes, that includes almost all great names that one may retort).

I'm sure she dreams to one day be as pious as you, Mr Downey.

Charles T. Downey said...

First, if you feel so strongly about something, you should put your name to it.

Second, you did understand the part about how I really liked her first recording?