New Classical Tracks: Nicola Benedetti

Nicola Benedetti: Szymanowski/Chausson/Saint-Saens
She could be a model, but Nicola Benedetti aims to focus on music.
Photo courtesy Deutsche Grammophon

In May 2004, at the age of 16, Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti won the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition. Now, just two years later, a leading music industry producer has been hired to transform her into a major international superstar without changing her image. Before all the hype gets out of control, let's consider her first CD to find out why she's capturing everyone's attention.

Nicola Benedetti went into the final round of the BBC competition with a little-known violin concerto by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Her violin teacher had introduced her to the work, and she felt an immediate connection with it. Benedetti chose to perform it during the competition because she wanted to play a work that would be musically challenging for the orchestra as well as the soloist. This concerto is brimming with orchestral color, calling for a large orchestra with three trombones, tuba and a full percussion section with piano and celesta.

When he wrote his first violin concerto in 1915-1916, Szymanowski was mesmerized by Polish philosopher-poet Tadeusz Micinski, using a poem called "May Nights" as the inspiration for this concerto. The poem makes reference to Scheherazade, the storyteller in the Persian tale "1,001 Nights," and the music evokes the mood of that story. Initially, it was a short leap to connect this piece to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," with the solo violin rising above the orchestra in a haunting melody representing the title character. It's very dramatic with an edge that's unsettling; Benedetti's performance makes you feel quite comfortable in this somewhat thorny, yet mystical musical space. She tells this tale with great expression, maintaining a luminous, weightless tone throughout, which isn't easy to do since she spends a lot of time in the technically demanding high upper register of her violin.

Camille Saint-Saens was a Frenchman who loved to travel. In the winter of 1888, he made a tour of various towns in northern France with a Cuban violinist, Diaz Albertini. One night during the tour, the composer made a small fire in his room, and the crackling of the burning wood gave him the melodic idea for his Havanaise; strange perhaps, but true. Benedetti really heats up the room with her interpretation of this piece. Her delivery is so smooth, like an elegant skater who has the pond to herself. Benedetti plays the Havanaise as though it was written just for her, with a sensitive touch to her phrasing and passion.

Conductor Daniel Harding, a young superstar in his own right, leads the London Symphony Orchestra on this new release, which features music that will challenge your ears. In addition to the Szymanowski concerto there's the world premiere recording of John Tavener's Fragment for the Virgin. There's also the lesser-known "Contemplation" by Johannes Brahms, which is quite beautiful, too.

Nicola Benedetti is a musician with a mind of her own. When I see the list of violin virtuosos who have inspired her, including Yehudi Menuhin, Fritz Kreisler, Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh and Jascha Heifetz, it makes perfect sense that she too, is on a quest to develop a strong individual personality. She's just starting to develop that personality on her debut release. It won't be long before we hear where her personal journey takes her next. Her second recording is already in the works.

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