The Scottish-Italian violinist Nicola Benedetti has an unorthodox choice of repertoire. She was elected BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004 with Karol Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, commissioned concertos from John Tavener and James MacMillan and worked with jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. Recently Benedetti recorded Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto, which she will be performing with the Dutch Radio Filharmonic Orchestra under James Gaffigan on Friday 2 November 2012 in Utrecht, in the series “De Vrijdag van Vredenburg” of TROS Radio 4. I met Nicola Benedetti after her rehearsal on Tuesday, October 30, and she was kind enough to answer five questions.
How do you choose your repertoire, the Korngold Concerto in particular?
I’ve recorded some less standard works, but basically I go with what I feel I’m able to do best, and what I feel most strongly about. I don’t go out of my way to find uncommon repertoire: often I follow suggestions from musicians, conductors, teachers or orchestras – there can be a whole lot of inspirations and reasons why I choose to perform a piece. I played the Korngold Concerto for the first time some three years ago, but from very early on I had targeted it as one of the more unusual, not so regularly performed concertos I was determined to learn. I have a box set of all the recordings of Jascha Heifetz, and when I started to work my way through them, Korngold’s was one of the first concertos I listened to. For a while I became quite fanatical about it and played it all the time. Since then I have listened to a lot of other interpretations, for here’s a piece and a composer that are rapidly becoming more popular. I felt this concerto could be the core of what might become a very interesting recording project.
We’re talking about your latest cd The Silver Violin – how did you envision this?
Korngold is one of the few composers that represents a totally eclectic output of music, and is unique in where he places this music – from film to opera, to regular classical performances. He was able to share the basis of his repertoire amongst all those different mediums, which I admire greatly. There are very few other examples of composers that manage to deal with such different forms with the same integrity as he did. I intended to mirror all of this in the recording: not only his output, but also his life story. So it was a big debate for me what I would put along with Korngold’s Concerto.
So how did you select the companion pieces?
My criteria for all the works were that they be written for film, or have been used in film. Ranging from Shostakovich to John Williams, to Mahler. Mahler never wrote for film himself, but his Piano Quartet was featured heavily in Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island, released a couple of years ago. So there’s a big diversity, but every piece resonated with me for various reasons. For instance, you can’t separate the story line of Schindler’s List, for which Williams wrote the score, from Korngold’s life. The fact that Hollywood saved his life after he fled from the Nazi’s to the States, is so much a part of his existence that I just had to put it in. And then there’s Mahler, who greatly inspired Korngold as a boy. He was part of the network of people in Vienna that were the greatest composers, thinkers, minds of the country, and probably even of Europe at that time. I think there’s an interesting cross fertilization between all of those composers and their meaning to the life of Korngold, some slightly more abstract than others.
Before the rehearsal I heard you discuss the second movement with James Gaffigan, what was this about?
Well, mostly boring technical questions and answers, based on the function of the piece and how we put it together. We spoke about different tempi markings, corrected some mistakes in the parts of the musicians, and the like. Also the score is quite vast, and remarkably colorful. There’s a large percussion section, a celesta, a harp, so there can be balance problems: sometimes you have to work really hard not to let the orchestra dominate the solo violin. And there are a few quite unusual, almost impressionistic moments, especially in this second movement. These are creating a very special effect, moving far away from the staple of the concerto, which is melody. The opening movement makes for a very vivid pitcher with its lush melodies, but here Korngold moves into a rather more impressionistic area. We were considering how to put this across best.
Jascha Heifetz premiered Korngold’s Concerto in 1945, to an enthusiastic audience but reserved critics. One of them called it ‘more corn than gold’, how do you feel about this?
That’s really rude. Yet I think that tastes change and people’s feelings towards music develop – basically it’s a good thing some people like a piece and others don’t. I always make a point of meeting the audience after a performance and the amount of people that love Baroque music but hate Tchaikovsky, or that love Beethoven but can’t stand Baroque music is amazing. I think that’s why all these styles exist! Korngold’s integrity as a composer is becoming less of an issue now, for among musicians—who are always the driving force behind the recognition of composers—there is growing consensus that Korngold is one to respect, for he really brought some fantastic music. The Violin Concerto is dear to me because it has an enormous generosity and freedom in the sound. The finale is tough, with very fast, virtuoso passages, but the bulk of it is melody, richness, it requires an enormous breadth of sound. As a violinist you’re asked to sing the piece, so Korngold hit the nail on the head when he said it was written more for a Caruso than a Paganini.
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Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music. She’s writing a biography of Reinbert de Leeuw, due for publication in 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @tdrks