Edinburgh Academy Junior School
Who knows what caused Nicola Benedetti to fight back the tears as she introduced the first of the two repeat Saturday shows that opened her Edinburgh International Festival residency this week. It was certainly out of character. Benedetti is known for her confident, commanding stage presence. She seemed lost for words before proclaiming: “I don’t know what’s come over me.” Best get on with the music, advised a voice from the audience. She did, and the atmosphere settled.
This was Scotland’s first sighting of the Ayrshire violinist’s Benedetti Baroque Orchestra, which recently released a new disc on Decca and has subsequently been performing its mostly-Vivaldi programme south of the border. The orchestra, specialists in the period instrument field, are few in number – a mere dozen including its eponymous star – with some recognisable Baroque veterans among its ranks. So Benedetti, as “frontman”, had potentially solid back-up.
From the outset – Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D minor (its moniker “La Folia” crediting the Corelli Sonata it is based on) made for a lusty opener – the stylistic ambition of this group was self-evident. It’s about the heart and soul of the Italian Baroque. For Benedetti – whose mother, she informed us, was from the same region that reared Vivaldi – that’s “about the people”. There was certainly a feisty humanity informing the animated performances that variously laughed, cried, danced, took risks.
Three successive Vivaldi concertos followed the Geminiani: the D major Concerto, RV211, ablaze with Baroque laissez-faire even in its central lilting siciliano-styled Largo; the B minor, RV386, more richly emotive but still with a sunny countenance; and one of the famous Four Seasons, appropriately “Summer” – apparently requested by the Festival – to take the programme to its official conclusion.
In each of these Benedetti’s personality was the driving factor, visually balletic, rhythmically electrifying and full of idiosyncratic surprises, from the provocatively sensuous bending of phrases to improvised cadences that defied expectation, and much to the thrill of the unsuspecting listener. That her errant hairband chose to adopt a life of its own, leading to another impromptu announcement, merely added to the spontaneity.
That said, a niggling discomfort pervaded this programme. Benedetti, herself, suffered moments of technical insecurity, with iffy upper intonation in key exposed passages, and a tendency, now and again, to lose firm focus in her tone. Her orchestra, super-efficient and ever-watchful of its director, seemed mostly content to play a back-seat role when the opportunity was there to throw in its own characterful surprises, more amorphous than distinctive. That seemed a missed opportunity.
Suddenly, though, all cylinders fired in the expected encore, the gorgeous Largo-Andante from Tartini’s A major Violin Concerto. Not in an all-guns-blazing way, of course, for this is one of those hushed, sun-baked Italian Baroque slow movements that flow with instinctive purpose and floating inevitability. Benedetti, wholly at ease with its natural melodic thread and inspiring melting support from her colleagues, now seemed perfectly at home.
Image: Nicola Benedetti credit Ryan Buchanan