Symphony No.4 in B-flat, Op.60
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: 4 February, 2018
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
It is less frequent in recent years for concerts to commence with an Overture and here was another example; it is also unusual to find the evening ending with a Concerto. Perhaps Marin Alsop’s reading of the Symphony could be thought of as the required prelude: in her hands it was not so much a grand statement and more a clear representation of the lyrical side of Beethoven’s nature spiced with urgency. In this purposeful reading the dark introduction did not linger and the Allegro vivace swept all the themes along energetically; the vigour with which the second subject was launched is not what the concerted woodwind section might normally have expected.
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s string section has a characteristic quality – an ideal realisation of the potential of ‘period’ instruments evoking a silken tone without the use of vibrato. This unified quality features shining (antiphonal) violins enriched by double basses which are enveloped in this unified sound. Alsop sometimes stressed Beethoven’s stronger statements by letting the trumpets flare or having the timpanist accentuate some moments with steep crescendos; this was effectively achieved, along with other subtleties, by Adrian Bending. The Adagio flowed gently forward, featuring notable clarinet solos from Antony Pay and the lively Scherzo had just the right amount of relaxation in the Trios where, unusually, Beethoven asks for a slightly slower speed. Tempo is a matter for discussion in the Finale which Beethoven marked Allegro non troppo but a decade or so later he added a metronome marking which indicated something close to Presto. Alsop took the latter option – very unfair to bassoonists because of the notoriously difficult solo from bar 184. The strings are sorely taxed at this pace too but as the music swept into the exposition repeat it was clear that the players had the measure of it. This interpretation was one of forward-moving continuity – a point that escaped those in the audience who pattered their clapping between movements.
The talking point in Nicola Benedetti’s beautiful and most-sensitive account of the Violin Concerto concerns the first-movement cadenza. Beethoven did not write one and those by Joachim or Kreisler are usually chosen. The composer did however write a cadenza when he arranged the Concerto for piano and some violinists including Max Rostal and Christian Tetzlaff (who uses a shortened version) have based their choices on it, but it was Wolfgang Schneiderhan who first drew attention to the advantage of using Beethoven’s own music and his convincing transcription is to be heard in his excellent recording with Eugen Jochum. Benedetti, assisted by Petr Limonov, also uses Beethoven’s cadenza but whereas Schneiderhan made a straight transcription, Benedetti’s version can be described as ‘inspired by’. A feature of the original is the use of timpani and with Benedetti there are further timpani sequences that Beethoven did not write; nevertheless the elaborations of the main theme are convincing.
I feel that the slightly aggressive nature of the cadenza does not entirely match the eloquent interpretation of the Concerto which found Alsop and Benedetti to be at-one in their reading and again forward momentum was of the essence; even the dreamily quiet section in the opening movement was not allowed to hold up proceedings. This attention to impetus ensured that the daringly slow tempo adopted for the Larghetto allowed the solo line to be touchingly expressive without appearing to linger. The expansion into the Finale was beautifully achieved and Benedetti’s immaculate technique coped with the virtuosic moments ensuring that they were part of the music’s unfolding rather than momentary showpieces. As an interpretation this was among the most attractive that I have heard; regarding the cadenza I should be interested to hear it again but not on every occasion.