It's been a big year for 25-year-old Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, who recently won the Classical Brit award for best female artist. Last fall, as she was basking in the glow of her first performance at the Last Night of the Proms, she was also watching her newest recording, The Silver Violin, skyrocket to number three on the UK album charts, surpassing pop star Justin Bieber.
That disc, a collection of film music for violin and orchestra, has just been released in the United States.
"That actually was quite entertaining for me to watch," Nicola recalls. "I think we were all excited, we were all just so thrilled at the prospect of so many people listening to the Korngold Violin Concerto. It's the kind of thing that you hope for. Because in actual fact — the repertoire on the disc, although there are more famous pieces like the Schindler's List and the Ladies in Lavender track — there's a lot of weighty, much heavier music on it as well. So I was excited for that fact. I still am. I'm still very sort of proud and happy about that."
At the heart of this recording is Erich Korngold's Violin Concerto, a work based on movie music he composed for Hollywood. Nicola says this concerto is well suited for her. "I think as a violinist, as an instrumentalist, you can embody certain composers and certain works more naturally than others. It can be a purely physical thing. For me, the Korngold concerto is one that I'm physically so comfortable in. And I love the registers. I love the effects that he uses. I love the chance to make such a sort of luscious sound — well, as luscious as I can manage. I think it's an emotive piece, I think it's heavy enough, but it has an immensely entertaining quality to it, especially the last movement. And that second movement — I think it's like silk being spun. It's just absolutely to die for."
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote some 50 film scores. Two pieces from his popular score, The Gadfly, are featured on The Silver Violin. Nicola also includes another rare find from one of his earliest scores, The Counterplan. Along with the Korngold concerto, she says this piece is her favorite. "It's a very, very unusual piece. He had an ability almost like a chameleon," she clarifies. "He could adopt a totally foreign musical language and create the most spectacular music. And I think if you listen to the three Shostakovich pieces on this disc — of course they really are miniatures and probably don't represent the main body of Shostakovich's work — the contrast is quite extraordinary. And that particular piece, the Andante from The Counterplan, is unsettling... it's searching... every time you expect a resolution, it goes someplace else and is very, very unlike a lot of the other sort of short, slow-tempo tracks on the disc. So I was adamant that it had to be on there."
Howard Shore's Concertino features the recurring theme for the film, Eastern Promises. It's a very dark, yet tender film about the Russian Mafia starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. Nicola says she finds this theme called Eastern Promises, Tatiana, to be quite captivating. "I find it absolutely incredible how something as simple and as repetitive and as limited in terms of the actual amount of notes and material that is used for that theme can evoke such a distinct identity. Once you see the film with that piece, the piece becomes the film, the film becomes the music. It's just an incredible skill."
The film, Scent of a Woman popularized the tango by Carlos Gardel, "Por una cabeza. In his arrangement, British composer John Lenehan returned to the original scoring for single strings, piano and accordion. Nicola says they had a lot of freedom to improvise within the structure of this tango. "You kind of think tango, you think you can just go wild with it. But it actually requires the opposite. It requires an immense amount of restraint and control and rhythmic accuracy and articulation, so the last reprise of the theme was a chance for us all to embellish. But that was great fun to record. It's a rare chance to experiment with the actual notes that you're playing. You get to experiment all the time with interpretation, but very rarely with adding and taking out notes."
This new recording, The Silver Violin, featuring film music for violin and orchestra, is one of many things Nicola Benedetti is really excited about this year. She sees this as an opportunity to share classical music with a broader audience. "I always have a level of awareness when it comes to the decisions I'm making for concerts, but particularly for recordings, you can be far more creative and far more daring," she explains. "It's a platform that allows for a concept, allows for a crossing of audience. Unfortunately the very controlled environment of classical music performances doesn't really lend itself very easily to much variation, especially not coming from the young soloist that's invited to perform with the already established orchestra and hall. So I think this disc was a chance for me to do that, and also because the original idea for the disc came from the Korngold violin concerto. It's a rare, rare concerto that allows for so many connections to so many styles of music that are not quite as specialized as classical music. So it was an opportunity that I tried to make the most of."