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Prom 6: Benedetti, BBC NOW, Søndergård - dazzling violin magic | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 6: Benedetti, BBC NOW, Søndergård - dazzling violin magic

Prom 6: Benedetti, BBC NOW, Søndergård - dazzling violin magic

Benedetti shines, Søndergård intrigues, but orchestra disappoints

Nicola Benedetti: Proms favouriteAll images BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Nicola Benedetti was the star of this show, no doubt about that. She is a Proms regular and favourite, attracting a large and enthusiastic audience, the Royal Albert Hall filled almost to capacity.

And she didn’t disappoint, giving a performance of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto that demonstrated all her strengths: precision, focus, variety of colour and mood, but above all the passion and conviction needed to make sense of this long and emotionally complex work.

The concerto is in four movements, with an extended cadenza linking the last two. The first movement has the mood of a serene introduction, at least under Benedetti’s fingers. Her rich, bronzed tone in the lower register was ideal, and her light vibrato delicately applied. For the Scherzo second movement, her musical persona completely transformed, now digging into the strings for biting attacks and a rich, buzzing sonority. The slow movement was more about beauty of tone than intensity of expression, but Benedetti’s sense of line proved ideal in unfolding this long soliloquy. The cadenza can feel sullen and joyless when performed by lesser violinists – it’s more a confessional than a virtuoso showcase – but again Benedetti found all the musical potential in its many contrasts. The last movement is a virtuoso showcase, and Benedetti’s performance was energetic, vibrant and, of course, note-perfect.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales matched the soloist in their passion and vigour. Technically, though, they were serviceable at best. The concert opened with a rarity, Shostakovich’s October, here receiving its Proms premiere. The work is a tone poem, written in 1967 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The explicitly political subject may be the cause of the work’s neglect, because musically this is Shostakovich at his best. It opens with a heroic, strident theme – lots of horns and cellos – and moves on to a quieter clarinet melody, the "Partisan Song" from Shostakovich’s score to the film Volahachayev Days, written 30 years earlier. The overall mood is decidedly symphonic, recalling the eighth and perhaps the tenth symphonies. Conductor Thomas Søndergård (pictured below) gave an incisive reading, but he was let down at many crucial points by the orchestra. The horns at the opening lacked confidence, and the strings struggled with the unfamiliar music, leading to recurring ensemble problems. Still, a welcome addition to the Proms repertoire, music-making on an ideal scale for the Royal Albert Hall.Thomas Søndergård conducts the BBC National Orchestra of WalesThe orchestra was on more familiar ground in the Sibelius Second Symphony, but still there were problems. The prominent woodwind interjections in the first movement were scrappy and the brass sounded coarse in the finale. The strings were on better form though, especially in the glacier-cool thematic statements early on. And Søndergård seemed to encourage the players to raise their game as the symphony progressed. His approach to the symphony was small-scale, sometimes disappointingly so. There was grandeur, but it was often held in reserve in favour of more intimate textures. The curiously pedestrian third movement was hardly at the Vivacissimo stipulated, and the finale was a frustrating affair, again beginning at moderate dynamic and tempo, and only very gradually moving towards the monumental conclusion (not that we were short changed there).

But there is an elegance to Søndergård’s Sibelius, with brief moments of extreme clarity that make all the other pieces fit together. In retrospect, the third movement didn’t lack for power or energy, but instead was presented as a more complex tapestry of light and shade, with the serene, peaceful interludes offering welcome repose. Similarly, the ending of the first movement, a short no-nonsense coda ending somewhere around mezzo-forte and without any great ceremony. But Søndergård made sure that every note here mattered and that the phrasing was perfectly shaped. The result was a moment of almost Mozartean elegance: clean, precise and quite, quite beautiful.


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