Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy (CD review)

Bruch: Scottish Fantasy; various short Scottish selections and various composers. Nicola Benedetti, violin; various accompanying artists; Rory Macdonald, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Decca B0021290-02.

Nicola Benedetti is a Scottish classical violinist, a child prodigy who has developed into one of the world's leading musicians. And by the look of her recordings, she is currently among the world's most-popular violinists, too. A single listen to her 2014 album Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy (she is Scottish, after all, and performing with a Scottish orchestra in Scotland), and one understands why the world has fallen in love with her. Her playing is both sensitive and virtuosic.

The first thing Ms. Benedetti plays is the Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46, by German composer and conductor Max Bruch (1838-1920). Bruch finished the work in 1880 and dedicated it to the violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. As you probably know, the Fantasy is Bruch's sampling of Scottish folk music, in this case a little over thirty minutes of such numbers, loosely tied together in four movements.

Although Bruch gives the notation "Grave" for the Fantasy's introduction, I doubt that he meant "funereal" as some musicians play it. Ms. Benedetti, however, finds just the right tempo and just the right inflections to create a mood of brooding introspection, followed by a flowing, pensive melancholy for the Adagio. Then, the rest of the work follows suit, with the Scherzo lively and full of fun; the Andante graceful and sweet; and the Finale aptly carefree and folk-like. With the BBC Scottish Symphony providing rousing support and a feeling for Scottish idioms and rhythms always foremost, the entire work comes off with high spirits and flair. While it maybe doesn't displace Jascha Heifetz's classic stereo rendering under Sir Malcolm Sargent (RCA), which still holds a special place of honor for many of us, Ms. Benedetti's interpretation is so affectingly charming that one must consider it a viable contender.

After the Scottish Fantasy, Ms. Benedetti provides a homage to her homeland, playing a series of brief selections celebrating her Scottish heritage, accompanied on some pieces by various other musicians. She begins, though, with three tunes for solo violin and orchestra based on the works of Robert Burns ("Ae Fond Kiss," "Auld Lang Syne Variations," and "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose"). They are not what you might expect, though, in arrangements somewhat closer to their original settings, and they are entirely delightful.

And so it goes, with Ms. Benedetti sharing the stage with Phil Cunningham, accordion and piano; Julie Fowles, vocals and whistles; Aly Bain, fiddle; Tony Byrne, guitar; Duncan Chisholm, fiddle; Eamon Doorley, bouzouki; Michael McGoldrick, flute; James MacIntosh, percussion; and Ewen Vernal, double bass. Ms. Benedetti and members of the orchestra end the set with a traditional yet quite-touching rendition of "Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." It's a lovely album.

An assortment of producers, recording engineers, and editors helped make the album at City Halls, Glasgow and Castlesound Studios, Pencaitland, Scotland in January 2014. There's a realistic sense of space, depth, and resonance to the orchestra, with Ms. Benedetti's violin nicely integrated into the orchestral setting, front and slightly to the right of center but not in our face. The violin tone is mostly realistic, too, with just enough steely hardness in it to remind us of an actual solo instrument. Midrange definition is more than adequate, as are bass and treble extensions, and balance is just a tad bright. Overall, it's pleasant, listenable sound; maybe not as transparent as some audiophiles might like nor as dynamic, but fairly easy on the ear.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa