Music review: The SCO, Nicola Benedetti & Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The SCO and Nicola Benedetti gave a beautiful performance of Mozart’s First Violin Concerto, but their take on Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht was the evening’s highlight, writes David Kettle
Nicola Benedetti PIC: John Devlin / JPI MediaNicola Benedetti PIC: John Devlin / JPI Media
Nicola Benedetti PIC: John Devlin / JPI Media

The SCO, Nicola Benedetti & Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ****

It was hard to escape a certain sense of déjà vu. The last time violinist Nicola Benedetti had played Mozart with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall was on 12 March 2020, and we all remember what happened a few days later.

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But this was a very different evening (a socially distanced, masked one, for a start). Benedetti’s Mozart this time was the teenage composer’s First Violin Concerto, and you’d be hard pushed to imagine a neater, tidier, better-behaved account of it. It zipped along, with bracingly clipped rhythms and carefully sculpted dynamics, wearing the care and attention that had been paid to it proudly. Benedetti’s slow movement was beautifully gentle and reflective, and she made use of quite a reedy tone to stand apart from her orchestral colleagues. If detail and intonation had the occasional lapse because of its brisk pacing, that was made up for by its sense of eager energy.

But despite Benedetti’s understandable star billing, it was Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – which she nonetheless directed, unobtrusively but effectively, from the leader’s chair – rather than her concerto performance that proved the evening’s highlight, and its emotional heart. The SCO string players delivered an electrifying performance, full of rhythmic suppleness, and pointing clearly to the piece’s origins as a chamber septet. Individual players stood out vividly from Schoenberg’s dense, restless textures (principal cellist Philip Higham offered some particularly inspirational playing), and its gossamer-light, glowing conclusion was a thing of wonder.

It was a wonder, too, that the two Johann Strauss II numbers that opened and closed the evening had come from just a decade or two before Schoenberg’s pioneering masterpiece. The closing Tales from the Vienna Woods, in particular, provided an appropriately mellow comedown after Verkärte Nacht’s churning emotions, in a beautifully considered account led by SCO former co-leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, at once gutsy and delicate.

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