I'm tempted to borrow a phrase from French composer Francoise Sagan and greet Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich with a cheery "Aimez-vous Brahms?" as the couple are about to play Sagan's Double Concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in eight Kiwi concert halls over 10 days.

Many will remember Benedetti's Tchaikovsky Concerto with the NZSO four years ago and she's as close to a proverbial household name as a violinist gets, with two Classical Brit awards on her mantelpiece and chart-friendly CDs such as 2012's The Silver Violin and last year's Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy.
Homecoming, which had Bruch's Scottish Fantasy surrounded by a selection of Scottish airs, played with Celtic musicians, was a project close to her heart.

"It was brought on by the growing celebration of Scottishness that was all around," she tells me. "There had been the Scottish independence referendum, the Commonwealth Games and a lot of big moments for Scotland. I wanted to delve into an area where classical violin might meet up with Scottish music."

Elschenbroich's profile is less populist but, with a host of awards and a busy international concert career, the young German is one of the top-rank cellists of his generation.


Last Saturday, they performed the Brahms concerto with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and, after one rehearsal today in Wellington, Elschenbroich admits that the full NZSO forces are "taking a little bit of getting used to, after what was more of a chamber orchestra experience last week." However, he point outs that this 1887 score, Brahms' last orchestral composition, is very much a coming together of the symphonic with the more intimate.

"There's no piece for a cellist that's quite so symphonic," he explains. "Yet the communication between the two soloists is closer to chamber music, similar to what happens in the first of Brahms' piano trios."

Above all, he feels that it is an intensely emotional and personal work: "There's a real compassion in it," he stresses.

"Perhaps it has something to do with it being a make-up piece written by Brahms for the violinist Joseph Joachim; there's a sense of brotherly love here, love between friends that would be more difficult to express in a solo concerto. That's something that we try to bring out."

Elschenbroich warns me that there is nothing of the competitive, almost gladiatorial spirit, you find when a solo instrument is pitted against an orchestra and Benedetti agrees.

"There is none of that aggressive, competitive element here," she says. "It's all about the love between two voices and the sharing of the music between them. Above all, we work very hard to bring out the heart of the work as much as possible."

With memories of Edo de Waart's magnificent Mahler Third still reverberating in the town hall from last week's concert, concertgoers will doubtlessly be keen to hear his take not only on Brahms but also Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.

With just one rehearsal notched up, neither Benedetti nor Elschenbroich is willing to comment on an unfurling relationship, but both are happy to make some comment about the subtle interchange between soloist and maestro.

Benedetti very much looks for "trust and musical kindness" from the podium. "You don't want someone who wants to micromanage what you're doing," she shrugs.

"You want more of a collaborator, someone with a lot of experience and profundity which can make working with him or her into a tremendous learning experience."

Elschenbroich reveals that he, in fact, has a brooding ambition to pick up a baton. My big dream was always to be a conductor," he sighs. "Being a cellist just sort of happened. I haven't tried it yet but I'm always studying symphonic scores and, one day, I'll get my chance."

• Christophe Rousset is one of the world's top harpsichordists. Next week, he and his ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, give six concerts around New Zealand thanks to Chamber Music New Zealand.



New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Where and when:

Auckland Town Hall, tonight at 7.30pm