Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto must be seared deep into Nicola Benedetti's muscle memory by now – it's the piece that won her BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004 and has been something of her signature piece ever since.
That level of familiarity makes for a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Benedetti is utterly at ease with the concerto's often strange twists and turns; she has mastered its quixotic nuances, flits breezily from its scented romanticism to its skittish virtuosity. She makes a consistently beautiful sound on her 1717 Stradivarius and takes evident care to listen carefully when sharing solos with orchestral members. On the other hand, she's capable of falling into routines. So ingrained are the junctions of this score that she occasionally rushed through them, and she explored fewer colours than in previous performances of the piece. Szymanowski's peculiar appeal depends on an exotic mystery which, in such practised hands, can begin to fade.
The rest of the programme was an equally mixed bag. The conductor was Andrew Litton, whose energy was brisk and jovial but who didn't tap into the BBC SSO's usual depths of texture and precision. Eternal Poems by Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz made a drag of an opener; the half-hour tone poem is unmemorable and overwrought, and Litton did little to bring the stock ecstasy and clumsy cliches to life. After the interval came Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, with too much sheen on the scherzo and an adagio hung up on detail (Litton subdivided the opening bars, beating nine instead of a slow three, and never regained the movement's menacing sweep). But there were some hearty orchestral tuttis and the bright, brash finale was a thrill.
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