Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Cinderella, Op.87 [selections]
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 21 May, 2014
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Vladimir Jurowski, in his New York Philharmonic debut, led a program brimming with spectacular colors. Nicola Benedetti, a late substitute for the indisposed Janine Jansen, gave a brilliant reading of Szymanowski, and after intermission Jurowski led selections from Prokofiev’s Cinderella. The Philharmonic is fortunate that Benedetti was available, particularly because the Szymanowski is her signature piece. She played it in the Final when she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition in 2004, and it was featured on her first recording (for Deutsche Grammophon). Her mastery of the work was apparent from her initial entry through the challenging cadenza and the quirky final figure.
Szymanowski broke free from the bounds of traditional tonality to create an idiosyncratic musical language that has roots in his Polish ethnic heritage and reflects influences from Chopin, Wagner, Strauss, and especially Debussy and Ravel. The composer also drew inspiration for this Violin Concerto from the poem May Night by Tadeusz Miciński, and he worked closely with violinist Pawel Kochánski, who contributed the cadenza. The concerto’s free-form single movement is lushly orchestrated. It paints a rhapsodic, almost erotic, soundscape, at times intensely romantic and at others graceful and languorous, with Benedetti smoothly tracking its sinuously shifting moods. Playing the 1717 ‘Gariel’ Stradivarius, she generated rich tones to express lyrical themes, and also made much of passages at the instrument’s extremes, including precise figurations in harmonics high above the staff and gritty bowing in the lowest register. Her technique was particularly spectacular in the cadenza, with its upward runs, descending glissandos and succession of double-stopped trills. Jurowski was assertive on the podium, allowing the orchestra to come through vividly without overbalancing the delicacy of Benedetti’s violin.
Prokofiev arranged three Cinderella suites, reworking some of the music, but Jurowski assembled his own set of twenty-one numbers drawn from the ballet score’s fifty numbers. He chose to focus on the principal story line of the fairy-tale, omitting most of the segments that deal with minor characters or do not advance the plot. Jurowski’s conducting style was highly controlling, shaping phrases and cueing virtually every entrance. The result was precise and crystalline.
In Act One, lyrical cellos and a lovely duet between flute and piccolo (Robert Langevin and Mindy Kaufman, respectively) introduce Cinderella, and three humorous episodes depict her stepsisters as they fight over a shawl, are fitted for new clothes and take a ‘Dancing Lesson’, the latter featuring violin duets excellently played by Sheryl Staples and Michelle Kim. In Act Two, the celesta accompanies ‘Cinderella’s Arrival at the Ball’, where we were almost immediately swept up by the strings into the pungent ‘Grand Waltz’, followed by a ‘Promenade’ replete with horn calls, trumpet fanfares and an underlying pulse from Alan Baer’s tuba. After a delicate ‘Duet of the Prince and Cinderella’, the Waltz is reprised and Cinderella loses her slipper fleeing from the ball as a ticking clock (wood block) counts down to ‘Midnight’. Here, as throughout, the percussion section was kept busy punctuating the music. In Act Three, the strings were lightning-fast, portraying the Prince’s ‘Galop’ in search of the owner of the slipper. Trombones mark the failure of the stepsisters to fit into the footwear, but the music becomes ardent as ‘The Prince Finds Cinderella’, and the two are happily united. In the closing section – ‘Amoroso’ – flute, violins and cellos sang out gloriously above arpeggios on violas and piano, with Arlen Fast’s contrabassoon and Baer supplying the deep bass. Even without the visual elements for which the music was designed, there was a great deal to savor in this engaging performance.