Arts & Events

Nicola Benedetti’s Valentine’s Day Concert

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday February 17, 2018 - 06:43:00 PM

Performing with London’s Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Valentine’s Day at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, Scottish-born violinist Nicola Benedetti gave a thrilling rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61. Presented under the auspices of Cal Performances, this concert also included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60. These two works were written by the composer about the same time in 1806 that he was working on preliminary sketches for his Fifth Symphony. Interestingly, both the Fourth Symphony and the Violin Concerto offer unusual opportunities for the timpani. 

In the Violin Concerto, five beats from the timpani open the work, creating a foundation that will anchor everything that follows. What comes next is a lengthy orchestral peroration. The first theme is introduced in the woodwinds, as is the second theme, though the latter is quickly taken up by the violins. Beethoven delays the entry of the solo violin as long as possible. When the soloist is finally heard, it is with ascending octaves, dramatically played here by Nicola Benedetti on her Gariel Stradivarius of 1717. There ensues a monumental working out of the main theme by the violin and orchestra, with the solo instrument often embroidering on the melody. A cantabile style prevails in this movement, establishing a mood of lyrical reflection. However, the technical demands on the solo violinist are many and challenging. Nicola Benedetti handled these demands with artistic aplomb. When it came to the cadenza, she played a version involving her in a dialogue with the timpanist. Here, timpanist Adrian Bending was a superb partner for Nicola Benedetti. I don’t think I have ever heard the cadenza treated this way, but it was extremely effective, especially on an evening when the timpani was already featured prominently in both this work and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. 

The second movement, a slow Larghetto, offers a contemplative melody from muted strings. The solo violin embroiders a filigree over soft pizzicato from the strings. Ms. Benedetti’s handling of the extremely high tessitura of this Larghetto was a thing of beauty, softly played and infinitely poignant. A serene purity of line predominates in this movement, though it rises to a fortissimo outburst at the end. The finale is a Rondo featuring an exuberant theme played in many different variations, though always recognizable. Here, too, Nicola Benedetti displayed technical virtuosity in the difficult fingering required of the soloist. Two brief but lovely solos for bassoon are heard in the finale, here excellently performed by Meyrick Alexander. When the familiar, much-loved theme is repeated one final time, the work comes to an abrupt and dramatic close. After taking her bows and sharing bows with concertmaster Michael Gurevich and the orchestra, Nicola Benedetti took the microphone and thanked the audience for sharing Valentine’s Day with her and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and she commented on the beauty of the Paramount Theatre. Then Nicola Benedetti and the orchestra played a lovely Largo from Giuseppe Tartini as an encore.  

Before intermission, the concert opened with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60. Written between his Third Symphony (“Eroica”) and his Fifth Symphony, the B-flat Major Fourth Symphony is probably the public’s least favorite Beethoven symphony. It is neither heroic nor tragic. Indeed, it is hard to categorize the Fourth Symphony, except to say that here Beethoven seems to embark on a moment of repose and reflection. If the Fourth harks back more to the Second Symphony than to the heroic, ground-breaking Third, one might say, as the French do, that this is a case of reculer pour mieux sauter.  

This said, however, one notes right from the outset of the Fourth Symphony that Beethoven does not proceed in any conventional way. The orchestra opens with a slow introduction, then breaks out in an Allegro vivace. When this boisterous music begins to fade, we suddenly hear the timpani begin a 23-bar rumble full of suspenseful expectation. What follows is a return of the opening slow music. In the second movement, marked Adagio, we hear a plodding motive interspersed with some airy flights. Then the timpani intrudes again, this time offering a strong pulsebeat that strikes me as almost a stomping motive. Surely, this is as unusual a slow movement as Beethoven ever created.  

The third movement features dance music, though with a twist. Beethoven subverts the dance elements with cross-rhythms and syncopation. The fourth and final movement reintroduces themes heard earlier, now reworked. A bassoon offers a boisterous, rapid solo. Then the orchestra resumes its treatment of the main themes. However, mysteriously – and some might say, confusingly – the orchestra seems to lose its way, and this happens twice. The second time, the music comes to a momentary halt. Then the violins play the main theme very quietly and at half speed. The bassoon does likewise. At last, the full orchestra rouses itself to bring this work to a triumphant finish.  

Playing on period instruments, the London-based Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, now in its fourth decade, displayed admirable restraint, never overplaying Beethoven’s music, as so often happens these days. Concertmaster Michael Gurevich deserves our special appreciation for his discreet yet sure-handed direction of the orchestra.