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Recording of the Week,
Nicola Benedetti plays Elgar
Though 2020 may be unlikely to go down in history as a great year for music in general, several fine new recordings of twentieth-century violin concertos have brightened these last few difficult months for me, notably Alina Ibragimova’s searing Shostakovich on Hyperion and Andrew Haveron’s glorious Korngold with John Wilson and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra; this week sees Nicola Benedetti completing the triumvirate with a terrific interpretation of the Elgar, released digitally a month or two ago and available on CD from today.
Premiered in 1910 by its dedicatee Fritz Kreisler, Elgar’s expansive late masterwork may occupy a very different sound-world from both Korngold and Shostakovich, but Benedetti’s interpretation strikes me as combining several of the qualities which made Haveron and Ibragimova’s respective approaches to those pieces so special. Like the Korngold concerto, the Elgar is a work which wears its heart squarely on its sleeve (the composer sheepishly described it as ‘awfully emotional’), and Benedetti embraces its full-throttle ardour with open arms: from her very first entry she’s generous with portamento and rubato alike, and there’s something about her rapid vibrato and lean, muscular tone which puts me in mind of the very earliest recordings of the piece, in particular the young Yehudi Menuhin’s account with the composer himself conducting. As with Wilson and Haveron’s Korngold, nothing is short-changed but nothing feels over-sentimentalised or manufactured – no small feat with either work.
Vladimir Jurowski (recording with Benedetti for the first time) brings the same impetus and precision to the long opening tutti which made his Shostakovich with Ibragimova such a marvel: though his tempo here is pretty much identical to Elgar’s own on that Menuhin recording, the mood is propulsive rather than stately, with the orchestral strings anticipating Benedetti’s own sinewy tone, and woodwind flourishes which get slightly lost on the early recording emerging with startling clarity. If Elgar prepares a sumptuous feather-bed for his soloist, Jurowski supplies a spring-board, and Benedetti takes full advantage, sustaining the energy and momentum throughout the ensuing seventeen minutes of this marathon first movement.
The central Andante is essentially a song without words, and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so aware of its kinship with the composer’s hugely affecting writing for the mezzo voice in The Music Makers, Gerontius and Sea Pictures as I was on first hearing this recording - Benedetti’s unforced intensity and focus in the lower register, as well as her wonderful sense of legato and unfussy eloquence, call to mind the legendary Elgar recordings of Dame Janet Baker (which one of my colleagues will be revisiting, incidentally, in a feature next week...).
Come the finale, though, Benedetti is pure Joyce DiDonato, revelling in the fiendish passage-work and lightning-fast register-shifts which earned the concerto its reputation as one of the trickiest in the repertoire – and as with great coloratura-singing, there’s always a clear sense of shape and direction that prevents things descending into mere note-spinning. It’s scintillating stuff, and there are passages where Benedetti genuinely seems to be improvising on the fly, with the same gleeful abandon which she brought to Wynton Marsalis’s similarly substantial concerto last summer. She and Jurowski are also marvellously alive to the echoes and anticipations of other works for violin and orchestra here, summoning weighty grandeur for the allusions to the Brahms concerto one moment and conjuring the airy soundscape of Vaughan Williams’s impending Lark the next: this is a performance which reminded me that Elgar's concerto truly does contain multitudes.
The three evergreens (Sospiri, Salut d’amour and Chanson de Nuit) which follow are beautifully done, and given with an almost homely intimacy that contrasts nicely with the epic sweep of the concerto: Petr Limonov’s piano sounds, in the best possible way, like a lived-in upright in an Edwardian parlour, and Benedetti phrases with a freshness and imagination that makes these old favourites sound new-minted. It's a heart-warming finish to a lovely, life-affirming album