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Busy Benedetti finds time to rove into traditional tunes

Being stood up by Nicola Benedetti should be hard to bear, but she does have a brilliant excuse.

TARTAN TINGE: Nicola Benedetti has used Max Bruch's A Scottish Fantasy as the connective basis of her new recording.
TARTAN TINGE: Nicola Benedetti has used Max Bruch's A Scottish Fantasy as the connective basis of her new recording.

On the day she and I are supposed to meet in Glasgow to discuss her new album, Homecoming, she is jetting to New York to play Szymanowski's Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, replacing, at very short notice, Dutch star violinist Janine Jansen who withdrew from the concert on medical advice.

When we do speak later she is full of apologies, but pulling out of an interview to make your Avery Fisher Hall debut seems quite reasonable to me, especially when the work is the one with which you won the BBC's Young Musician of the Year title ten years previously.

"It's true, I didn't have to contemplate the invitation for too long," she concedes, "and it is very rare than I am able to accept cancellations because I am so busy."

It seems like a good call though. The New York Times had a bit of a rave over the quality of her sound at both extremes of her instrument's range and the "luminous grace" of her playing. It is quite an extra to be able to slot into a 2014 schedule that is already challenging, and during which her homeland sees a great deal of its favourite classical export.

Benedetti appeared at Celtic Connections at the start of the year, in a concert that premiered some of the music on her new disc, and at the end of this month plays with all of Scotland's orchestras during the course of the Commonwealth Games cultural programme's Classical Marathon Day, produced by Glasgow UNESCO City of Music. That, without doubt, will be another first unlikely to be repeated by another musician in the foreseeable future.

After that she plays chamber music at the Queen's Hall, and Korngold with the Czech Phil and Jiri Belohlavek at the Usher Hall for the Edinburgh Festival,.

At the festival she is also hoping to meet up with Kirill Karabits, the young Ukrainian conductor directing the fascinating I, Culture youth orchestra from Eastern Europe.

She was performing the Beethoven Triple Concerto with him alongside regular chamber music partners, cellist Leonard Elsenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orcherstra last week at the Cheltenham Music Festival, where she is artist-in-residence.

All of which suggests that Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy, the Decca disc released today, may not have quite the promotional push behind it in terms of live performance that her last disc, the cinema-themed Silver Violin, enjoyed.

It was a huge commercial success, dominating the classical charts for weeks, so Homecoming has a tough act to follow, and some of its music will be unfamiliar to much of Benedetti's global fan-base, even if it is likely to find her new friends in Scotland.

"There was a sequence of events meant that Silver Violin got mass media attention," says Benedetti. "The awareness of it was a bit of a fluke, but people took to it and bought it."

In some ways she has followed a similar thematic path with the new album in giving it some sort of narrative and stylistic line.

It opens with German composer Max Bruch's idea of Scotland, a country he never visited. A Scottish Fantasy is a four-movement work that Benedetti first heard in the recording by Jascha Heifetz while at the Yehudi Menuhin School and which has become an important plank of her repertoire in recent years, with performances with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, at the BBC Proms and in the USA. Her recording of that work with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Rory Macdonald became the "connective basis" of the whole project, she says.

"I wanted to understand the music of my own country better, but there was lots of back and forth - it is hard to come with a concept around that work and there were lots of potential directions. We could have done other music in the classics inspired by Scottish or Celtic music, or contemporary classical music by MacRae, MacMillan and Grimes."

In the end, perhaps characteristically, Benedetti chose what was arguably a braver path: "My repertoire as a fiddler was really quite shameful, which is what happens when you focus every minute of everyday on classical technique. Here was the perfect template to go in that direction - and I felt I knew the team well enough."

That team is the cream of Scottish traditional musicians, with accordionist Phil Cunningham assuming the role of musical director, Aly Bain as fiddle mentor, and singer Julie Fowlis, fiddler Duncan Chisholm, guitarist Tony Byrne and Michael McGoldrick on flute among the contributors.

"It was still a slow, complicated and frustrating process because of my lack of expertise," Benedetti says. "My descriptions of speed, mode or texture often fell short, so it was a huge learning experience to articulate myself. I was often up until one and two in the morning studying the repertoire because of a whole process of subtleties I didn't foresee."

That repertoire includes arrangements of some of the best known music of Robert Burns and some of the most challenging fiddle tunes of James Scott Skinner as well as Cunningham originals and versions of the Mouth Music of the Gaelic tradition brought to popular attention by Fowlis and others.

Benedetti is eager to emphasise the context of her venture into traditional music however.

"There is only 25 minutes of non-orchestral music on the CD - it is not the driving force. And I did ask: Why should I be playing this music as opposed to someone who dedicated their life to it? But if you have that fear, what are you going to do? You can't make decisions on that basis. There were too many reasons to do it - personal and creative ones - and I think it is part of my role as a 21st century violinist.

"There are lots of two-concerto discs - and my next project will be exactly that. My future is in the standard classical repertoire and I will never be bored or dissatisfied with that. But I have a personal connection with these musicians and Burns was integral to my upbringing.

"It will be interesting to see how the album does in terms of the popularity of those melodies."

Nicola Benedetti's Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy is released by Decca today.

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