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.

JJP

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


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa