Music Review: Nicola Benedetti and Katya Apekisheva at the Kennedy Center

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

Nicola Benedetti is a striking-looking, very young violinist (she's 21) who is a darling of the British classical music world, winning a Classical Brit award and, at 16, the BBC's Young Musician of the Year title, among other accolades. And she picked a striking collection of music for her Washington recital debut with the pianist Katya Apekisheva at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Tuesday night. As she described it, speaking to the audience before her encore, "It was quite a heavy program, but I think you enjoyed it."

But her musicmaking wasn't, in itself, very striking at all. Curiously, Benedetti looked like she was playing with a great deal of intensity but didn't always sound that way. As she bored into her 1712 Stradivarius to create a distinctive, throaty sound, I had an image of a cartoon character launching into a construction project and throwing up so much sawdust that the view of the final product is obscured. There was an awful lot of playing going on, but it didn't always add up to assured musicmaking.

These may seem like harsh words, particularly since Benedetti did everything she was supposed to. For one thing, she picked the requisite balance of contrasting and challenging music. A warm, mellifluous Brahms sonata -- his Second -- yielded to the naked agitation of Ysaye's Fifth Unaccompanied Sonata, with left-hand pizzicati sending out explosions of notes like popcorn flying from the strings. After the intermission, she offered Prokofiev's First Sonata and then gave way to Ravel's "Tzigane." Prokofiev was in a way the best match for her particular sound. In terms of tone and approach, she is a 20th-century violinist rather than a 19th-century one: Romantic beauty of line is not her emphasis. Rather, she offers a certain brash toughness, a scrappiness, that fit Prokofiev, bringing out the stridencies of his double-stopped passages. In the high, light, fast passages at the start and end of the piece, she brought a thread of icy metal to the cold wind of music that wafted a little aimlessly over the strings, above the firm, sad tread of the piano.

But while Benedetti played with an air of technical competence, there were chinks in her armor with regard to intonation and even fingerwork. As a musician, she seemed oddly vague, prone to wandering off in the middle of a phrase and forgetting where she was going with it, so that strong statements kept trailing off. She is capable of very good things indeed, but she didn't always seem to be in charge of her performance, or even present. Apekisheva, by contrast, was a solid accompanist with a sure sense of direction.

Still, there was much to like about Benedetti, culminating in her encore, the second movement of Ravel's Violin Sonata: It was one of the few times I've ever heard a classically trained violinist actually seem to understand the jazz idiom that Ravel was trying to bring out. Benedetti can groove. And if Tuesday's recital was uneven, it also marked her as someone to watch.

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