This is a superb debut by Nicola Benedetti in the world of the Italian baroque. It's a well-chosen and judiciously arranged programme of concerti and sonatas by Vivaldi and two of his contemporaries, Tartini and Veracini. The violinist's technical mastery and stylistic affinity with the music are obvious from the very start of the "Grosso Mogul" violin concerto RV208. This is a striking and thoroughly engaging work, one of Vivaldi's finest, its brilliant and demanding cadenzas showing Ms Benedetti at her very best.
The works by Tartini and Veracini fare equally well. In Tartini's so-called Devil's Trill sonata, the trill section is brought off with a wonderful mixture of spirit and tenderness; and in the same composer's concerto in A minor D115, the performers beautifully convey the lyrical qualities and emotional depth of this composer's music. I say performers, because of course it's essential to include the outstanding contribution of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, stylish and experienced baroque practitioners who prove here to be ideal partners for Ms Benedetti, further enhanced by Christian Curnyn's faultless direction.
Two of the Vivaldi works performed here are arias transcribed for violin, one from the sacred motet "Nulla in mundo pax sincera" and one from the opera "Giustino", and both of these prove excellent material for instrumental treatment. The programme ends with an absolutely superb performance of the Summer concerto from the Four Seasons, with the birdsong imitation passages a particular delight. In this concerto, as in all the other works on the disc, Ms Benedetti plays with panache, flair and with extraordinary grace and feeling, and altogether proves to be a wonderful baroque stylist.
The recorded sound and balance throughout are ideal, and the booklet notes - by Michael Talbot, with additional contributions and insights from the soloist herself - are excellent. The many atmospheric photos in the booklet, exploring the theme of Ms Benedetti's Italian origins, are sure to delight her numerous fans. As for the cover photo: of course I get the point of the young player, with battered violin case, leaving the courtyard of an equally battered Italian villa after her music session ..... but surely the Italians can come up with finer two-wheeled machinery than that weedy Vespa? I for one would have appreciated something like a Ducati or an MV Agusta in its place, to match the beauty, excitement and charisma of Ms Benedetti's Italian baroque. Still, since the rest of the scenery in the picture is not half bad, I imagine most music-loving bikers will be prepared to overlook a minor lapse in taste on this occasion.
Returning to more serious matters, though, this is altogether a terrific foray into baroque music by Nicola Benedetti, and I sincerely hope she will consider bringing us more in due course. There's already plenty of Vivaldi around on CD, but Tartini or Locatelli, for example, would offer lots more excellent opportunities for her musicianship; and then how about Bach, Biber, Leclair and the other baroque masters from elsewhere in Europe? Having said that, it wouldn't do to be too prescriptive, since the violinist has already shown herself to be highly adventurous in her choice of repertory and I doubt if she needs any suggestions from you or me about what to play next. In fact, since writing the above in preparation for posting this review, I was lucky enough to hear and see her in concert at Edinburgh's Usher Hall - where, with the RSNO under Stéphane Denève, she brought the house down with a stunning interpretation of Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, a performance alternating exquisite lyricism with rollicking bravura.
Ms Benedetti, then, is able to bring feeling, insight and virtuosity in full measure to baroque concerto and Romantic blockbuster alike - not to mention music of the 20th and 21st centuries - and is clearly emerging as not only a brilliant but an exceptionally versatile musician. As for the present "Italia" disc, you'll have gathered by now that it's an absolute knockout. If you're already a fan of baroque or Benedetti, or both, you'll probably need no further encouragement; but if you're new to either one, I'd be very surprised if you're not hooked after listening for about two minutes.