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Review: Violinist Nicola Benedetti kicks off Schubert Club post with richly narrative Brahms recital

October 3, 2018

In the cold light of day, Aria doesn’t look like the ideal place for a chamber music concert.

A post-industrial edifice in the North Loop neighborhood (formerly home to Theatre de la Jeune Lune), the venue has a cavernous main auditorium with a high ceiling, exposed venting and stripped-down brickwork. In other words: not an environment where the subtleties of a violin sonata seem likely to register.

But charismatic artists have a way of shrinking the spaces where they play, dissolving barriers between music and listener.

That’s precisely what happened Tuesday evening at Aria, where Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti gave her inaugural recital as the Schubert Club’s first “Featured Artist,” a post that will involve a slew of educational activities in addition to regular concerts.

The program for the evening was uncompromising in a sense, featuring all three of Brahms’ violin sonatas, unmitigated by the music of other composers.

There was a real danger of overdosing on Brahms, but Benedetti’s spoken introductions — part of a less formal approach to concert-giving espoused in the “Schubert Club Mix” series — softened access to the music, setting the distinct emotional atmosphere of each sonata clearly apart from its neighbors.

Sonata No. 1 showed Brahms in love, hopelessly, with Clara Schumann, the wife and later the widow of Brahms’ beloved friend and fellow composer Robert Schumann. Benedetti’s account of the sonata’s opening movement struck a delicate balance between the sweet sanctity of Brahms’ feelings and the knowledge they would never be fully reciprocated.

As a player, Benedetti thinks in long-term paragraphs, eschewing the attention-grabbing postures of the passing moment. That approach paid rich dividends in the sonata’s wistfully regretful slow movement, where Brahms’ secret emotions are unraveled for public inspection.

A place of resigned quietude is eventually reached at the sonata’s conclusion, something that was poignantly suggested by Benedetti and her outstanding pianist Alexei Grynyuk. As the final bars were sounding, a car exhaust exploded like a firecracker outside on 1st Avenue N. — real life interrupting, without obliterating the world of Brahms’ private reverie.

The Second Sonata is a sunnier piece, less encumbered with the notion that even the deepest love can go unrequited. It provided ample opportunities for Benedetti to display the rich poetic sensibility that permeates her playing. Constantly shifting the position of her bow to eke out niceties of expression, she locked fully into the emotional equivocations of the Second Sonata’s finale, where Brahms appears to doubt the happiness the first two movements appeared to offer.

The Third Sonata is a harsher, more dramatic piece. It showed that even when required to wheel out virtuosity, Benedetti isn’t a self-advertising player. She remains fastened primarily on the composer and the music.

In the tricksy third movement both Benedetti and Grynyuk were brilliantly responsive to Brahms’ quicksilver shifts of accent and dynamics. They caught a sense of desperation in the superficially bullish finale.

Too much Brahms? Not a thought of it. Benedetti is an absorbing musical storyteller. Like all the best, she left you wanting more.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.

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