REVIEW: Nicola Benedetti's concert with Worthing Symphony Orchestra at the Assembly Hall, Worthing

Nicola Benedetti
Nicola Benedetti

WHEN a concert's final work – an irreproachable performance of Saint-Saëns' ever-popular organ symphony – seems almost anticlimactic, you know you have experienced something quite extraordinary earlier in the evening.

Such was the case at Worthing Symphony Orchestra's memorable curtain-raiser for its 2017-18 season at a sweltering Assembly Hall.

"That was not a piece to play in this heat," said conductor John Gibbons with masterly understatement, "but it certainly adds to its intensity."

He was referring to Dmitri Shostakovich's rollercoaster ride of a First Violin Concerto in A minor, which he, the WSO and internationally acclaimed soloist Nicola Benedetti had just (metaphorically speaking, of course) hit out of Gorky Park.

Knowing they were going to be reprising this most demanding of works barely a week later at the BBC Proms, other musicians might have been tempted to treat the Worthing concert as a comparatively gentle little training run.

There was no chance of this with the half-Scottish, half-Italian Benedetti, whose virtuosity is nothing if not allied to her total immersion in the music every time she plays, never giving anything less than her all to audiences everywhere, be it as a passionate music educator in the school hall, or performing at the Assembly Hall or Royal Albert Hall.

There was also not a snowball's chance in hell of throttling back on Shostakovich's four-movement masterpiece, which affords the soloist only a few moments' rest throughout and cries out to be played as if your life depended on it.

Written for renowned Soviet violinist David Oistrakh at a time (1947-48) of severe censorship in post-war Russia, the concerto was not premièred until October, 1955, two-and-a-half years after Stalin's death.

In the opening Nocturne, Benedetti's 1717 Stradivarius often sang out in high-pitched Lark Ascending territory, but there was little of the elegaic or lyrical here against the signature Shostakovich backdrop of glowering bass and cello harmonies.

The ominous soundscape tallied with Gibbons' introductory reference to Shostakovich – an artist "dangerous to people like Stalin" – as always having a packed suitcase ready in case of that dreaded knock on the door in the middle of the night.

A madcap Scherzo followed, full of galloping folk rhythms and a Danse Macabre-like mood which, at its conclusion, had Benedetti puffing upwards on her fringe for a well-earned, if fleeting piece of self-administered air-con.

Her evening's work was only halfway through, for she then brought her artistry to bear on the profoundly beautiful Passacaglia movement. This culminated in a marathon cadenza which, in its unresolved angst, paced up and down like a prisoner in a cell.

It was then straight into a frenzied sprint for the line in the final Burlesque movement, leaving Benedetti just enough breath to pay an emotional tribute to John Gibbons.

She said it was "phenomenal" how he was prepared to programme such a challenging work and then perform it after only one rehearsal. She praised his great listening skills as a conductor and also thanked him for everything he did for musicians and the community "against all the odds".

One's educated guess is that "against all the odds" refers to the severe financial constraints faced by the arts in general and professional orchestras such as the WSO in particular.

Worthing Symphony Orchestra has been part of the town's music scene since 1926, but having been a municipal orchestra, it is now a registered charity and has to become financially independent.

Four of the main orchestra positions are currently sponsored and the Benedetti concert was staged with the generous support of the William Alwyn Foundation.

It was fitting, therefore, that Alwyn's suite for the 1952 Alec Guinness film The Card opened the second half, before the aforementioned Third Symphony of Camille Saint-Saëns, featuring Michael Wooldridge at the Worthing Wurlitzer, rounded off a momentous night. And a rousing fanfare to the new season, before the Shostakovich, had been Jerome Moross's theme to 1958 American Western film epic The Big Country.

* Nicola Benedetti is playing Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto again at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, July 18 (7pm), Thomas Søndergård conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

* Worthing Symphony Orchestra's next concert is on Sunday, October 1, when Turkish pianist Idil Biret will be making a return as soloist