EIF: The Story of the Violin
Old College Quad
If it seemed surprising that the Festival was still advertising tickets for sale for Nicola Benedetti’s solo turn at this year’s event on the day before the performances, then that was possibly because it was not what I had expected. It may be my mistake, but I had assumed that “The Story of the Violin” would be Nicky in her education persona with a family show about the history of her instrument and its pivotal place in the development of music. Instead, and not in any way second-best, the title masked a recital of solo repertoire, virtuosic stuff that spanned 250 years of composition.
It was, in fact, exactly the sort of thing a festival’s “artist in residence” might be expected to perform, between her concerts of early Italian repertoire and music by anniversary year composer Igor Stravinsky. There was no script and very little narrative, and, as she admitted at the start, the real “story of the violin” was a much bigger and longer one than she could attempt to tell in an hour.
It was, nonetheless, A Story of the Violin, illustrated with examples of how far four composers have pushed the instrument and the skills of players. Benedetti was hardly idle during lockdown, but it is not fanciful to imagine that she spent some of her time at home honing these demanding solo pieces, and they did have a story to tell.
She began with a Passacaglia from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, which Rachel Podger memorably performed complete in St Cecilia’s Hall at the last live Edinburgh Festival in 2019, juggling a selection of instruments in different tunings. Virtuoso playing notwithstanding, and sensibly in standard tuning, it was really just a warm-up for the epic Bach Chaconne, from the Second Partita, that followed. It is one of the pinnacles of the violin repertoire, but Benedetti did not treat it as in any way a technical demonstration, being just as concerned with communicating the design of the whole piece.
There was a music stand on stage, but the violinist consulted it very sparingly during her recital, and not at all during the 20 minutes or so of the Bach. This was a programme that has to be memorised and in the fingers to be performed at all – reading the music is not really an option.
That is just as true of the Paganini that followed, the first and last of his 24 Caprices, the final one the most re-used (and sometimes abused) works in the whole history of music. Its violinist composer may indeed have been the “trickster and dramatist” Benedetti described, but she was concerned to let us hear this tune in its original authentic form, not as a mere party-piece. And if Niccolo Paganini really did invent the “Good Evening, Friends” musical sign-off at the start of the 19thcentury, I am not sure I’d appreciated that before.
Concluding with the solo Sonata No 5 in G by Eugene Ysaye from a further century on, and about 100 years ago, was to demonstrate how the techniques Paganini pioneered were put to the service of a new sound world that we are exploring yet. It also showed that the Belgian invented the “unsquare dance” a long time before Dave Brubeck took five.