Mostly Mozart – Nicola Benedetti

Moz-Art à la Haydn
Violin Concerto in A, K219 (Turkish)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Nicola Benedetti (violin)

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
John Nelson

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 30 July, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Mozart was his undemanding A major Violin Concerto, which passed by in a flash, here – consistently quick tempos that reminded of ‘quarts and pint pots’ and which rendered the Adagio (adagio!) rather shapeless in its rapid flow. What was admirable was the lively and detailed orchestral work (including some especially vivid oboes) and John Nelson’s genial encouragement. Nicola Benedetti didn’t seem especially involved, though, and her actual playing was somewhat below par – a tad scratchy and unkempt and with a lack of tonal distinction (if not dynamic contrast) to which occasional soupy vibrato seemed inappropriate and added-on. Her choice of Joachim’s outsize cadenzas really didn’t belong in such a fleet (‘historically aware’) account and they seemed indulgent and anachronistic. When she played this concerto with the Royal Philharmonic and Bátiz, Benedetti seemed rather more poised and easeful. Maybe she was uncomfortable with the tempos chosen here.

The concert opened with some ‘entertainment’, if very little music, by Alfred Schnittke. Begun in darkness, which left some of the audience audibly bewildered, Moz-Art à la Haydn is … well, what is it? Certainly it’s scored for 13 strings – two solo violinists and, similarly antiphonal and standing, two groups of four violins, and with two cellos and a double bass at the rear of the platform. Maybe this ‘piece’ has its dark side, maybe it reflects Schnittke’s ‘difficult’ life and troubled relationship with the Russian authorities … or it just could be a very unfunny waste of 15 minutes with its meaningless ‘effects’ and theatrics. A quotation, the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No.40, proved derisory amidst Schnittke’s typical (rather boorish) inventions of past eras. That said, the musicians and John Nelson entered into the spirit (whatever that is) of Schnittke’s machinations – good on ‘em – but to what purpose?

For Beethoven 7 Nelson galvanised the Academy to some terrific execution. But … oh dear. If you like Beethoven played as fast as possible – and, as indicated, the Academy responded with splendid commitment, unanimity and nimbleness for the score-less, baton-less and shapely-gesturing Nelson – then this might have been a great performance. However, another view is to find this careering conception devoid of any feeling or humanity. It was relentless. Joyless! Heartless! It was also poorly balanced in that the strings – just 24 of them, founded on merely two double basses – were nearly inaudible when whooping horns, steely-toned trumpets, and timpani, were in full blast. And, boy, could you hear the drums! But what a fantastic timpanist Tristan Fry is. He was superbly accurate and articulate, and used very hard sticks to produce an ideal clattering sound, but his fortissimo was unbelievably ruthless in obliterating colleagues, and it soon became superficial. Did Nelson want this?

The performance did have its moments, though. The opening of the Allegretto (a quick march, of course) responded well to the plangent tones of four each of violas and cellos, and the two basses – the only time that the bass line made any real impression – and this movement’s fugal midpoint was sounded and blended with real sensitivity. And the scherzo fairly sizzled by at a cracking tempo (maybe the fastest ever) with Nelson judging to a nicety that the trio should also ‘move on’. But this indurate approach continued into the finale, which was ludicrously fast, as most of the first movement had been. By the time the finale crashed into earshot (literally), one was tired and annoyed at the battering being metered out. Under the circumstances, having all repeats observed was unfortunate.

An ill-conceived account, then, over-brassed and over-timpanied (or under-stringed) and which proves unquestionably that Beethoven had no idea how to work his metronome – as conductors of the past realised; as did Zubin Mehta just a few weeks ago in the same hall. This Academy/Nelson performance had nothing to do with the ‘dance’, either, to recall Wagner’s much-used ‘sound bite’ for this symphony, and fell foul of doing things ‘by the (authentic) book’. Yes, there were dynamic changes, even some ‘hairpins’, but the overall shame about this ill-judged rendition is that the conductor and the players are all excellent musicians and their skills were wasted on meaningless excessive speed, crass imbalance, and downgrading Beethoven’s greatness.

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