Vaughan Williams & Tavener

Nicola Benedetti; LPO/Litton (DG 4766198)

Release Date: November 2007 2 stars

Nicola Benedetti - Vaughan Willliams and Tavener (DG)

The problem with Nicola Benedetti's third and latest album is that there's simply too much of it. Or rather, what little there is of it is repeated far too often. Of the four works on the disc, three are compositions for solo violin and strings by John Tavener, and although it's only fair to expect the works to bear a certain family resemblance, it makes for a distinct lack of variety.

The disc opens innocuously enough, with Andrew Litton and the London Philharmonic Orchestra setting the scene for Vaughn Williams' Lark Ascending. The orchestra creates a marvellous fantasy here, with clean and clear strings, softly shaded woodwind and warm brass capturing that special something which England apparently ceased to be over 100 years ago. Throughout, Benedetti's playing is superb. Her technique is flawless, her vibrato is balanced and warm, and her phrasing is subtle and elegiac. Sustained notes sing out with shapely allure and although I can't help but feel that her tone could be fuller on some of the lower solo passages, the maturity and expressiveness in the cadenzas, for example, is more than enough recompense for this.

The first of Tavener's works on the disc is a new arrangement for soloist and string orchestra of his Song for Athene. The work has been well arranged, and the moody, oft-repeated chorale sounds elegant and sombre when played by the low strings. The sideways expressive slides into extreme dissonance create a strong sense of anguish and pain, though on repetition (followed by repetition) it loses some of its sting. The celebratory valediction swells with warmth and colour, and brilliantly displays Benedetti's ability to move from the darkness of the occult to the radiance of the stars in a few short moments. For no real reason that I can see, though, the joy quickly subsides into the introspection of the opening chorale, repeated again.

Dyhana – an Indian word meaning contemplation, and the next of Tavener's compositions for solo violin and string orchestra – breaks with the British tone of The Lark Ascending and Song for Athene (famously performed at the funeral of Princess Diana). However, there does seem something traditionally English about a work which tries to colonise the sound world of the Hindustani Sarod and the Raga whilst at the same time being built around predominantly Western drones and arpeggios. It is the non-productive conflict between these two musical languages which remains with the ear. Benedetti plays what sounds like a twentieth century interpretation of a nineteenth century fantasy to the accompaniment of thin and washed-out bass sustains, before she inexplicably makes her way, with glissandi and plenty of vibrato, up an archetypically 'foreign' sounding scale, only to collapse back into a series of Western arpeggios familiar from the close of any great Romantic concerto. It is thoroughly unsatisfying stuff, compounded by Tavener's refusal to allow the strings out of a very narrow tessitura. The result is the oscillating sound world of a hollow and wispy musical hybrid, which is neither timbrally varied enough to be interesting, nor similar enough to make much sense as a whole. Benedetti plays well, but you can't help but feel that she has no real chance to show us of what she's capable.

Tavener tries to make a virtue of the cyclical oscillation of sound worlds by dubbing the centrepiece of the album the Lalishri Cycle. The work is based on the poetry and philosophy of the fourteenth-century female Kashmiri saint Lalla Yogishwari. Her innocence and 'passionless-passion', explains Tavener, resonate with the sensuous but non-sexual qualities of Benedetti's playing. Given the similarities Tavener hears between them, it's intruguing to note, then, that on achieving enlightenment the saint danced naked under the vaults of heaven.

As a whole, the five movement cycle amounts to a lengthy work. It is structured around the seemingly arbitrary alternation of contrasting snippets of music: a quasi-improvisatory passage for quasi-Sarod engendering only mild interest; a surprisingly sweet lyrical section; and an arbitrary 21-part canon. Each of the movements ends with an off-stage quartet 'representing the celestial world', a device which is lost on this recording. There are some more exciting passages in the later 'cycles', but their effectiveness is largely undermined by other, completely inexplicable ones. Hence, the third cycle opens with Benedetti playing a virtuosic moto perpetuo figure, which sounds like Baroque pastiche, while the high strings of the ripieno riff away on an accompaniment, which sounds like a Casio keyboard's interpretation of the Tango, and the low strings flounder in a haze of confusion. This continues and what little tension there is it ratcheted up only through gradual growth in volume. It grows, it tightens, it explodes. Then, after a brief silence, it repeats itself.

Throughout all of this, Benedetti and the LPO really do give it their best. You can't help but feel, however, that Tavener is really running short of ideas, or has at least not grasped how to make a virtue of repetition. Further, he seems to think that the neatest way to capture the 'passionless-passion' of his muse is to refuse to allow the violinist's tone room in which to move. Benedetti is stuck in the higher end of the instrument, playing with a thin tone and unable to commit properly to the work or unleash her instrument's full expressive capability.

Benedetti is an outstanding violinist. It is both rare and exciting to find the willingness to take risks in a player of any age, not least one so young. I do not want for a moment to appear to be criticising her involvement with new music on the grounds that it is simply new. Rather, what I caution is this: if a player wants to perform new commissions and celebrate new works, then those works must do two things. They should expose the player to their full ability, and they should be as exciting as the performer themselves. This album fails on both counts.

By William Lockhart