Wynton Marsalis, Violin Concerto review: Nicola Benedetti tackles a taxing part with tenderness and brio

Detail of the album cover for Marsalis's Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite
Detail of the album cover for Marsalis's Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite Credit: Decca

Ivan Hewett reviews Wynton Marsalis's Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Nicola Benedetti (violin), Cristian Măcelaru (cond)

The ambitions of Wynton Marsalis know no bounds. Back in the Eighties he was dubbed “the greatest trumpeter on the planet” in both the classical and jazz worlds. He became a composer of full-scale works marrying classical technique and jazz idioms that often tackled big themes such as slavery in America. He set up the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, launched a huge education programme that has reached most schools in America, and proselytises tirelessly for the civilising properties of jazz.

His latest capacious concert work, to which he gives the rather grand title Violin Concerto in D Major, has all the virtues and occasional faults of this gifted, curious and idealistic musician.

Marsalis can’t help infusing his music with ethical uplift, which is inspiring but sometimes creates a sense of a thesis being strenuously demonstrated. Here the thesis is that jazz is a hybrid art form, an intertwining of what Marsalis calls an Anglo-Celtic root and an African root. Time and again in this piece a jaunty violin figure will launch off with the feel of a jig or a hoedown, and morph before our very ears into a swinging figure, often with that flavoursome “blue note” that gives the blues its feel of stoic resignation and melancholy.

The fact that the piece was written for star Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, the soloist on this CD, gives an extra piquancy to the mix. At the work’s premiere back in 2015 it was criticised for being prolix, and Marsalis has clearly done some judicious pruning. It now comes across as tighter and more focused, though it still gives the impression of a composer determined to pack everything he wants to say into a single piece.

Still, the generosity is winning, and there are some wonderful ideas, such as the tremendous, deeply moving brass-and-fiddle outcries of the third movement “Blues”, which sounds as if the spirit of a slave song or “field holler” has suddenly taken possession of the orchestra.

Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti

Benedetti throws off the hugely taxing solo part with tenderness and brio, and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru summons an orchestral palette interestingly flavoured with jazz and blues half-lights.

The other work on the CD is a charming set of five Afro-European dances for solo violin, also composed for Benedetti. Its slow, wistful movement launches off with a near-quotation from Dvořák.

Could this be Marsalis’s deliberate homage to another musician who dreamed of bringing together the European and African strains in American music? That would be so like him.

Wynton Marsalis's Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite is released by Decca