Friday 18 July 2014

Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy

Nicola Benedetti - Homecoming, A Scottish Fantasy - DECCA
Bruch Scottish Fantasy, traditional Scots music; Nicola Benedetti, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Rory Macdonald; DECCA
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 15 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Brilliant combination of the Bruch Scottish Fantasy with traditional Scots fiddling

What to programme with the Bruch Scottish Fantasy? This new disc from Nicola Benedetti takes a distinctive new tack by pairing the fantasy with traditional Scots music, in both orchestra arrangements and played in traditional style. Accompanied by Rory MacDonald and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Benedetti plays Bruch's Scottish Fantasy and a group of Robert Burns songs arranged by Irish composer Paul Campbell and by Petr Limonov. Then, most interestingly, Benedettis joins a group of traditional Scots musicians including Julie Fowlis, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain to play traditional Scots tunes.

Whilst this might be seen as returning to her roots, in an article on the Decca website Benedetti makes it clear that as a young classical musician in Scotland she was kept well away from traditional Scots music because the fiddling techniques required to play it are so very different. So the disc is as much an exploraton as a homecoming. But what does seem to have happened is the Scots element has provided some cross-fertilisation with the Bruch.

Bruch's Scottsh Fantasy was written in 1880 and dedicated to the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate. A violin concerto in all but name, it was sometimes referred to as Bruch's Third violin concerto. The work was premiered in Liverpool in 1881, where Bruch was conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. It was premiered by the violinist Joachim (who seems to have had some input into the solo part). Bruch takes a group of Scots traditional tunes and throws them into the mill of German romanticism. Benedetti's performance balances both these traditions within the work.

The Introduction is gravely impressive with Benedetti playing with lovely slim and elegant tone. At her first entry she steals in almost unnoticed - magic. In the Scherzo things get characterfully vigorous, with a nice bounce to the rhythms. Benedetti throws off the bravura elements with aplomb. Both she and MacDonald keep the movement very toe-tapping. The Andante has a singing melancholy about it again with a lovely sweet tone and fine flexibility from Benedetti. Finally a perky and infectious finale with a nice snap to Benedetti's playing.

In the hands of some performers the Scottish Fantasy can seem a poor relation to Bruch's First Violin Concerto. But here Benedetti, MacDonald and the BBC Symphony Orchestra re-invigorated the work in an enjoyably notable performance.

Next comes a group of arrangements of Robert Burns song, Ae fond kiss, Auld lang syne and My love is like a red, red rose. The first and last receive quite luxuriant treatments for violin and orchestra from arranger Paul Campbell. Whilst they are unashamedly romantic, they are also very appealing and stay just this side of soupy. In the middle there is Petr Limonov's arrangement of Auld lang syne, a stunning set of unaccompanied variations with Benedetti creating drone accompaniment by double stopping.

The traditional music sets are just magic. First we get Hurricane Set combining Spey and Spate with The Hurricane. Then a selection of traditional tunes in which Benedetti is joined by Julie Fowlis, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain with a group of musicians including Eamon Doorley, Tony Byrne, Ewen Vernal, Duncan Chisholm and James MacIntosh.

To my ears, untutored in the niceties of Scots traditional music, they are all a complete delight. But I am aware that we are listening to a fascinating rapprochement between two very different traditions. My favourite is the Mouth Music and Tunes Set - Bothan a bh'aig Fionnghuala in which we are treated to some fabulous mouth music from, I think, Julie Fowlis.

The disc finishes with a lushly lovely arrangement by Campbell of Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond

The recording has made a little bit of history. On its release it reached No. 1 in the Classical Chart, but also No. 19 in the Pop Chart; the first time a British violinist has reached the Top 20 of the Official UK Albums Chart for 20 years.

Album sampler on YouTube, Nicola Benedetti's introduction to the album on YouTube

Max Bruch (1838 - 1920) - Scottish Fantasy
Robert Burns, arr Paul Campbell - Ae Fond Kiss
Traditional, arr Petr Limonov - Auld Lang Syne Variations
Robert Burns, arr Paul Campbell - My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose
James Scott Skinner - Hurricane Set
Traditional - Dean Brig o'Edinburgh/Banks Hornpipe
Phil Cunningham - Aberlady
Traditional - Mouth Music and Tunes set: Bothan a bh'aig Fionnghuala
Phil Cunningham - The Gentle Light That Wakes Me
Traditional - Coisich a Ruin (Walk My Beloved)
Traditional, arr Paul Campbell - Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Julie Fowlis
Phil Cunningham
Aly Bain
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Rory MacDonald (conductor)
DECCA 0289 478 6690 9 1CD [1:15:19]

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