Mary Woodward Review

Edinburgh International Festival, Nicola Benedetti – The History of the Violin

***** (5 stars)

Another lovely sunny day in Edinburgh, and under the transparent awning over Old College’s quad we could look up and see small puffs of white cloud chasing each other across a blue, blue sky, and bask in the warmth from the bright sun…  

This in itself would have been cause enough for rejoicing – but then we were joined by Nicola Benedetti, and the temperature rose as a tangible wave of love emanated from everyone present and wrapped itself around the young woman standing quietly by herself on the stage, waiting for us to settle into silence so she could welcome us to her recital.

The violin in its present form was first made in northern Italy in the mid 1500s, but for centuries before this bowed stringed instruments were played in many cultures around the world.  Nicola Benedetti’s violin, loaned to her by Jonathan Moulds on the condition that she play it for him and his friends several times a year, was made by Stradivarius in 1717 and is one of the, if not the best in the world.  What must it be like to play an instrument that many others have played in the past – how do you get to know it and persuade it to accept you as its new partner? And it sounds amazing!

Nicola Benedetti began her recital with part of the first piece of violin music that is notated in a form easily accessible to a classically-trained musician, the passacaglia from Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, written around 1676.  Biber was one of the earliest violin virtuosos, extremely well-known in his day.  Starting with a simple four-note descending minor phrase, the piece heaped ever more complex flights of fancy on this basic repeated ground, demonstrating not only the composer’s dexterity but also the extent of his musical imagination.

Fifty years later, and just two years after her Strad was made, J S Bach wrote what Nicola Benedetti called ‘the most formidable violin piece ever written’ containing ‘a phenomenal range of techniques’ – the Chaconne in D minor from Partita no 2 for solo violin,  BWV 1004.  This dry title disguises the fact that the piece, again a set of variations on a repeating bass, and again in a minor key, encompasses a dazzling variety of shivering scales and arpeggios, simple melodies soaring over complex decorations, passages in harmony, constant changes of mood, tone and volume – it seemed almost impossible that this could be played by one pair of hands on a single solo instrument.

The applause was warm and prolonged, and the soloist understandably took a short break.

Niccolò Paganini was the first performer/ composer to become a superstar in his day.  The legends about him are extraordinary, and it’s surprising that his life hasn’t been made into a mega-epic film.  We heard the first and last of his 24 Caprices for solo violin, written between 1802 and 1817: as Nicola Benedetti said “you probably won’t know the first one, but you’ll almost certainly recognise the second one” – how true!   We entered a very different sound world – fast and furious music saying “look how clever I am, how fast I can play: and now let’s go up a key, and up again, and again, and make it impossibly difficult…”  The first caprice was short, sweet, and showy: the second was full of trills, frills, highs, ultra-highs, lows, sugars and spices, lyrical serenades, deep rough groans and a phenomenal display of technique: the impossible being made to look ridiculously easy.

The recital closed with Belgian composer and virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe’s two-movement Sonata no 5 in G major for solo violin.  Written in 1923, with the First World War just a few years in the past, the sound world was hugely different from Paganini’s, the piece reflecting the changes both in the world and in music and compositional techniques in the hundred years since the former’s day.  Slow and meditative, passionate and introverted, the sonata was much less flashy but extremely complex both harmonically and rhythmically and in the way the soloist was asked to play – at one point plucking one string while bowing another, something I’ve never seen before.  

And that was it: now we had to return to the everyday world, having been transported to a little bit of heaven for an hour.  The applause was once more prolonged and imbued with a warmth of affection I have rarely experienced.  Before playing the final piece Nicola Benedetti told us about it and thanked us for coming – such a loving gesture from someone who is so talented and yet so down to earth, and whom we were delighted to thank in return for bringing such joy to our day.

Edinburgh International Festival, Nicola Benedetti The history of the violin, Old College Quad Run Ended

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