“Bl**dy Hell.”Not the words you hear uttered aloud at classical music concerts unless something special has happened. I did not hear them from where I was sitting but Nicola Benedetti did from up on stage. Plenty of other maybe less apocalyptic things were said in the pause after she and Alexei Grynyuk had torn and raged through the opening presto of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata.
As well as the usual clearings of throat and repositioning of posteriors on seats that goes on between movements there was a sudden audible sense of murmured excitement around the almost capacity-filled Assembly Hall. People were in shock and amazement. I was told straight after the concert of a Beethoven sceptic converted to the composer by this performance.
There were two types of frisson. In the minority were listeners who knew the work and had been bowled over breathless by the attack and daring of the playing, which vividly projected Beethoven in an urgent and almost explosive game of hide and seek, and chase, between the instruments and the musical ideas. But in the huge majority were people attending their first concert of chamber music and had never even heard the piece before.
Because last spring they had bought tickets to a WSO orchestral concert featuring Benedetti in concerto action but from which she withdrew to grasp a big career opportunity to deputise for someone indisposed in New York and, with the conductor Vladimir Jurowksy, to play her signature Concerto by Szymanovsky. In recompense, these Worthing concert ticket buyers were offered this event instead and if any, through unfamiliarity, were intimidated by the title ‘Recital’, the lure on Benedetti dissolved the reluctance.
And to elaborate on one regular audience member’s remark: in a concerto you get around 25 minutes of Benedetti Stradivarius for your money (35 if it’s, say, Beethoven or Brahms); but in recital you get plenty more than an hour. Today, cups overflowed. Not only did they get this recital but on that spring day, in her place they’d heard a world class performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto by her partner Leonard Elschenbroich.
The Bloody Heller was, of course, merely sharing the Russian reaction of Leo Tolstoy after hearing the Kreutzer Sonara, who then wrote a play of the same name, inspired by the dark dash and turbulence of music written by Beethoven between his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies.
Benedetti and Grynyuk’s cohesion and alertness, wide breadth of dynamic range, and relish for the fun and sensual playmaking in this first movement was exceptionally exhilarating. And their strong articulation sounded crystal clear in the revered acoustic of a building too large for ideally-witnessed chamber music which is by nature intimate ― although Beethoven himself declared he was writing a Sonata in concerto style ― pragmatically to fuel the virtuosity of its original dedicatee, and his own as a star pianist accompanying him in the first performance.
The second movement’s set of variations found Benedetti and Grynyuk as resplendent in their own sensitivity as well as virtuosity already displayed. Then they took the Finale like a theme park white-knuckle ride with only one possible result: a cheering audience won over by great music hidden away from most of them hitherto by its remote traditional chamber music setting.
Already, we had heard Mozart as most of us have never have heard him before, in almost complete introversion. His E minor Sonata K304 was born while aged 22, seeking work in Paris, suddenly lost with his suddenly dead mother, lonely, alone in a room, far from their Salzburg home. There is no place here for operatic mourning we find in some of his later instrumental work. It’s domestic and poignantly understated ― and we knew all of this because it was in the playing of these two young people.
Of course, instead of being heard on Mozart’s brittle-sounding contemporary keyboards, the inherent emotion was beautifully controlled by Grynyuk in the luxurious modern mode of a Steinway concert grand.
Next, less than 20 miles from the cottage near Stopham where it was composed 97 years ago, they played Elgar’s one Sonata for Violin and Piano, also in E minor. Elgar’s dreamy imagination is the feeling to be transmitted and they gave us a sense of relaxing tension leading on towards a veiled sense of mystery and exploration as Elgar himself experienced amid his upper Arun Valley woodland surroundings which appeared to him magical in both a comfortable and an uncomfortable way.
Here, as everywhere, Grynyuk showed how much of a wide inspiration his playing and artistry must be to Benedetti. First recommended to record a demo of Beethoven’s Sonata No 5 with Elschenbroich, he then became part of their hugely promising threesome now preparing their first record, of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio. Grynyuk has the touch to give flight one’s senses, an instinct for drama that can thrill, for colour that can illuminate, and a sense of poetry that can halt time. In his demeanour and potential, to borrow Elgar’s own words, he is ‘restrained and capable of the highest things’.
The cheers after the Beethoven brought encores. The Schindler’s List film theme (John Williams), requested, Benedetti told us, in a letter from an audience member. And then from Erich Korngold, another of her signature composers, we were given Marietta’s Song sad from the opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City). A more affecting pair of encores will not often have been experienced in this hall. But when, instead of a whole orchestra, it’s just two persons playing to nearly 900, these are among the emotional rewards awaiting one in chamber music.
Benedetti will be back here with Brahms and the WSO on June 7. Many will now want her back one day with Grynyuk, perhaps Elschenbroich, too. This was the first chamber music concert in the Assembly Hall for more than 30 years. A highly obscure fact which had nothing to this event carrying a sense of occasion heightened by the seemingly already concrete relationship the WSO audience has with Benedetti.
The Scots-Italian told them: “I feel like this hall is a second home to me. I’m so grateful for the many opportunities John Gibbons [WSO director, the day’s compère and page-turner] has given me to play here and the support he’s given my career. This place is very important to me.”
We agonise as our national game of football continually searches in vain for role models. Unlike classical music, it doesn’t have a Nicola Benedetti.
Romantic Valentines on February 15: Sussex International Piano Competition finalist Rabiga Dyussembayeva plays 20th century film music maestro William Alwyn’s Piano Concerto in a programme otherwise of Tchaikovsky with the WSO; Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture, Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Adagio and the 5th Symphony.
At this website, read Richard Amey on the Brighton Dome chamber music series, the Coffee Concerts. Latest article coming soon: Heath Quartet.