Is there a more daunting challenge for concert violinists than the Chaconne from Bach's Partita in D minor?
Probably not. Its 12-plus minutes of unaccompanied playing leave the soloist with nowhere to hide, and there are slippery slopes to fall off at practically every corner.
The Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti made a bold statement by opening her Ordway recital with the Chaconne on Friday evening, and her decision was richly justified.
Benedetti's playing had a satisfying poise and maturity that ushered the listener gently into the labyrinthine patterns woven by Bach in this mesmerizing piece of music.
Her superbly flexible bowing arm meant that Bach's liberal use of multi-stopping — more than one string played simultaneously, or near-simultaneously — didn't grate as it often does in fallible performances.
A sense of freshness and spontaneity was also strongly evident as Benedetti picked a pathway through the variations Bach spins on the repeating bass line that gives the piece its structure.
Bach's Chaconne is a predominantly serious piece of music, but a lighter side of Benedetti's musical nature was highlighted in "Fiddle Dance Suite for Solo Violin" by the jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis.
Marsalis wrote the suite especially for Benedetti, and Friday evening's performance was the U.S. premiere.
Musically the five movements of the suite explore the interface between the fiddle music brought to America by Scottish and Irish immigrants and the gospel, ragtime and jazz traditions already implanted in the continent.
The confrontations imagined by Marsalis often had comic implications — the quirky syncopations thrown up in the opening "Sidestep Reel" elicited a peal of laughter from the audience in Benedetti's droll interpretation.
Marsalis' partial deconstruction of a campfire lullaby in "As The Wind Goes" allowed nostalgia for a past happiness to seep through, but mainly the "Fiddle Dance Suite" was upbeat and playful in demeanor.
Benedetti's fiery Scottish roots frequently surfaced, especially as she ripped through "Bye Bye Breakdown," the increasingly manic finale where a barn dance hoedown rattles the rafters.
Fireworks of a different, more ambiguous kind animated Sergei Prokofiev's Second Violin Sonata, especially in the spitting accents of the agitated Presto movement and the rhythmically truculent finale.
In the two slower movements, Benedetti unraveled a silvery tone quite different from that used in the Bach and Marsalis pieces, silkily deploying a generous vibrato and relishing Prokofiev's melodies.
Where Prokofiev's lyricism is impregnated with sardonic irony, Richard Strauss' is unapologetically sumptuous. His youthful Violin Sonata closed the program, and Benedetti reveled in its ripe romantic sensibility.
Her playing soared rhapsodically in the outer movements and had tenderness aplenty at the opening of the gently rocking "Improvisation" that forms the middle movement.
Concision was never Strauss' strength, and even Benedetti couldn't prevent the overlong finale from seeming a trifle self-satisfied and bloated.
But the interplay with her outstandingly alert pianist Alexei Grynyuk was a constant source of satisfaction. The two barely seemed aware of each other on the platform, yet they have the sort of telepathic understanding that typifies the best recital partners.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.