sun 14/08/2022

Nicola Benedetti, Barbican Hall review – from Bach to the Highlands via New Orleans | reviews, news & interviews

Nicola Benedetti, Barbican Hall review – from Bach to the Highlands via New Orleans

Nicola Benedetti, Barbican Hall review – from Bach to the Highlands via New Orleans

A bold solo voyage through three centuries of violin virtuosity

Bach and beyond: Nicola BenedettiAll images Mark Allan/ Barbican

If a standard-sized recital hall can be a lonely place for a solo violinist, playing an auditorium of Barbican dimensions must feel like crossing a desert under pitiless spotlight sun. Happily, Nicola Benedetti’s prowess as a communicator means that she made those trackless wastes shrink into a shared garden where she, and we, explored her instrument’s many kinds of bloom.

Defiantly, a solitary figure in red on the enormous stage, she began her recital with Bach’s D minor partita – and the mighty, earth-moving Chaconne which completes it. Post-interval, she moved onwards through the history of the solo violin to play Ysaÿe’s fifth sonata from the 1920s before finishing with the Fiddle Dance Suite written for Benedetti by her friend the trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis in 2018. If anyone imagined that this final item would count as light relief to wind down with – well, check your assumptions.

Benedetti took a risk in starting with the Bach as any subsequent work – whoever the composer – would strike us as a comedown of sorts. Cleverly, her programme invited us to hear connections across epochs as different eras, and musical personalities, explored the sonic and harmonic reach of the violin. Behind these three centuries’ worth of virtuoso pieces (if we date the D minor Sonata to around 1718) lie bold and boundary-stretching transformations of basic dance melodies and rhythms – a genetic kinship that Benedetti’s playing made sure we never forgot. 

The D minor partita, of course, tests both instrument and player to their outer limits and beyond. Benedetti can conjure textures of burnished gold and spun silver as well as any of her peers – and we heard both, especially in the Sarabande and Gigue. But once the Chaconne got underway, her stress fell on Bach as a fearless pioneer unafraid of earthy, rugged, even coarse-grained effects, as he digs into the deepest strata of loss and desolation during the terrible beauty of this unflinching quarter-hour – written, according to legend, as an elegy for Bach’s first wife Maria Barbara. Benedetti let us appreciate the chorus of voices – harmonious or discordant – that Bach spins out of this single frail vessel. As it summons up its ghostly ensemble of invisible instruments, the contrapuntal writing – mind-bending double-, triple- and quadruple-stops and all – calls for more than tonal refinement and polish (which Benedetti has in abundance). Allowing space for silence and suspense, she refused to gloss over the rasping, grating elements of struggle in this music. A sort of angelic upper voice, sumptuously phrased in Benedetti’s hands, quarrels with the lower registers of grief and anguish as Bach unrolls his endless variations on a rock-like bass motif. With wrenching drama rather than consoling beauty as its keynote, Benedetti’s reading filled the empty stage with a spooky, and tragic, polyphony. Nothing could quite follow that. Still, the pair of post-interval works, with the soloist now in chequerboard black-and-white [pictured above], showed how Bach’s expeditions to the violin’s farthest frontiers continued to inspire and challenge players. Ysaÿe’s sonata has elements of the virtuoso showcase: a swanky vitrine for the Belgian maestro’s skills. Its opening sequence complicates a lyrical, rising-sun figure – almost like some early-modernist lark ascending – with harsher, more jagged figures until a rhapsodic climax sees the dawn break in a blaze of glory. The folk-dance DNA which ran through the evening’s programme comes to the surface in Ysaÿe’s “Danse rustique”, in which unsettling sonorities and disruptive rhythms fragment the peasant merry-making. Try dancing in 5/4, as Benedetti noted during her engaging intros to the evening’s works. She closed with Marsalis’s Fiddle Dance Suite, which turned out to be a trickier – and more intriguing – prospect than a superficial description might suggest. 

The idea of an Afro-Celtic fusion which blends Scottish, and Scots-American, folk styles with blues and jazz textures sounds like the sort of thing that might pleasurably occupy one of the fringe tents during a chilled-out session at Glastonbury or Latitude. In fact, the New Orleans-born composer has bigger catfish to fry. His five kitsch-free movements smartly, but lovingly, deconstruct the language of reel and jig. The result is no folksy mishmash but a set of bristling, angular and often adventurous trips into the harmonic hinterlands of Highland favourites. Custom-made for Benedetti, with sparkling leaps and runs as blizzards of 16th and 32nd notes sweep across the strings, these devilish dances yield serious fun as Marsalis delves into the affinities between the rhythmic heritage of two great families within American music. There’s a wild, edge-of-breakdown frenzy in the “Sidestep Reel”, cheeky pastiche in the Highland blues of “Nicola’s Strathspey”, and even a touch of Bach partita (at least I heard it) in “Jones’s Jig”. The lilting tune of “As the Wind Goes” might have delighted the Bruch who wrote the Scottish Fantasy – along with Benedetti’s thrilling double-stops and eerie sul ponticello passages. Marsalis signs off with a driving hoedown that at times puts barrelhouse or boogie-woogie in a kilt as he closes the Afro-Celtic circle in exhilarating flourishes. Benedetti, meanwhile, added some foot-stomping dance moves to the mix in an awesome display of cross-limb co-ordination.

Don’t think folkloric mushiness here, but something closer to the more stringent and analytic remaking of vernacular styles you find in the sound-worlds of Bartok or Enescu. Benedetti proved a terrific advocate for a movement – and a suite – that ranks (as she said) as “one of the most difficult things I have ever played”. As an encore, she relaxed us with the finely-spun but never cloying sweetness of Burns’s “My love is like a red, red rose” – a reminder that “art” and “folk” traditions have been happily fusing for two centuries and more.

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