THE DAILY TELEGRAPH 19.1.08
CD OF THE WEEK - GEOFFREY NORRIS
A few weeks ago, when the Telegraph asked various figures prominent in the arts to nominate their top talents for 2008, the conductor Marin Alsop chose James Ehnes.
Anyone who has been following this young Canadian violinist over the years will know why. His gifts were already prodigious when I first heard him in the 1990s. He has continued to mature since then, his playing deepening across a wide repertoire in which, as Alsop observed, he manages to identify intimately with the style and the spirit of the music he is performing.
This is abundantly true of this recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, made during a series of memorable concerts last May. As it happens, I also heard him give his first ever public performance of the concerto several years ago (with the London Symphony Orchestra in Brighton), a heart-stoppingly sensitive interpretation which has now been further consolidated through experience, making for a performance that seems to strike at the music's very soul.
Ehnes, in whom technical acumen and beauty of tone can be taken for granted, captures the passion and wistfulness of the concerto's temperament ideally, the ebb and flow of emotion and pacing finding poignant counterparts in the way Andrew Davis conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra. Phrasing and dynamics follow the naturally undulating contours of the music, but, in the orchestra as in the solo part, it is the range of insights and unassuming subtleties of expression that cause the shivers to run up and down the spine.
advertisementCoupled here with an equally idiomatic account of the Serenade for Strings, this performance of the concerto is a landmark recording from a consummate artist whose instincts and sensibility mark him out as one of the finest musicians in today's firmament.
CLASSIC FM MAGAZINE - JANUARY 2008
Classic FM Disc of the Month - Reviewer: Emma Baker
There seem to be two sides to Edward Elgar (1857-1934): the composer of the typically Edwardian, stately music of pomp and circumstance, and the enigma – the man with a passionate Mediterranean heart beating in the body of a proper English gentleman.
His Violin Concerto in B minor falls into the latter category. It was written between 1907 and 1909, and premiered in 1910, when Elgar was in his early fifties and at the peak of his fame.
It was the result of a commission from the legendary violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who had been pestering Elgar for a concerto since 1905, having named him the greatest living composer of the day: ‘Elgar will overshadow everybody,’ he said. ‘He is on a different level... I wish Elgar would write something for violin.’ And, during the concerto’s lengthy gestation, Elgar wrote: ‘It’s good. Awfully emotional, too emotional, but I love it.’ It was to become one of his own personal favourites.
Although the concerto is dedicated to Kreisler, it bears an enigmatic inscription, in Spanish: ‘Aquí está encerrada el alma de…’ (‘Here is enshrined the soul of…’). It’s a quotation from a novel, Histoire de Gil Blas, by Alain-René Lesage, but actually refers to Elgar’s close friend and artistic muse, Alice Stuart-Wortley (daughter of pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais), whom he nicknamed ‘Windflower’.
The concerto is an epic 50 minutes in length – ultra-Romantic, technically challenging and full of typically Elgarian wistful nostalgia. Over the years it has been enshrined in several iconic recordings – Yehudi Menuhin’s extraordinary, youthful version, made in 1932 when he was only 16 with the 75-year-old Elgar himself conducting, Albert Sammons from 1929, Jascha Heifetz from 1941, and the 1991 recording by Nigel Kennedy that sealed his reputation, to name but a few (sadly Kreisler never recorded the concerto). With this in mind, any new recording has a lot to live up to.
However, Canadian violinist James Ehnes, who was our featured Disc of the Month artist in the February 2007 issue for his Korngold, Barber and Walton concertos, has not only surpassed himself but has produced something really exceptional in this, his latest disc for the small independent label Onyx.
It’s a recording of a concert that was given in the intimate space of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2006, and captures all the excitement of playing to a live audience, while maintaining technical and recorded perfection. A major part of the disc’s success is thanks to the Philharmonia, under English conductor Andrew Davis who is renowned for his Elgar interpretations.
From the opening bars you can tell this is something really special. The long orchestral introduction is beautifully shaped but has a real sense of urgency and spontaneity about it, and this is echoed in Ehnes’s playing, which is immediately rapturous, mercurial and subtle.
He plays his 1715 ‘Ex Marsick’ Stradivarius with a luscious, silvery tone, full of light, shade and colour, and has a very natural, eloquent way with phrasing that gets to the truth of each gesture in the music – especially in the rhapsodic, extended aria of the slow movement. His awesome technical ability sounds so natural he makes light of the fearsome difficulties of the Allegro molto, creating a virtuoso display that’s impressive, but never gaudy or flashy for its own sake.
The emotional heart of the concerto lies in this final movement – in the extraordinary, extended accompanied cadenza that takes up half the movement and is the summation of everything that has gone before. Here Ehnes is at his most sincere and spellbinding; accompanied by the hushed interjections of the orchestra, he creates a breathtaking musical intensity.
This is a concerto of fairly epic length (Ehnes plays the work in around 48 minutes; other recordings have notoriously varied between 42 and 53 minutes) and requires not only stamina on the part of the soloist, but an awareness of the overall architecture and journey of the piece. Here, soloist, conductor and orchestra shape everything beautifully, with an almost telepathic sense of togetherness; it often feels like time has been suspended for the listener.
The rest of the disc is taken up with the Serenade for Strings, a work from 1892 that’s one of Elgar’s best-known compositions, and one of the earliest of his mature works. The strings of the Philharmonia are excellent here; the wistful second movement is particularly memorable.
With the bonus of a short but fascinating booklet note, this mid-price CD is one that should be added to everyone’s collection.
BBC CD Review 1.12.07
[Elgar scholar JPE Harper-Scott in conversation with Andrew McGregor]
[JPE] ...Perhaps the most impressive recording of this concerto that I've ever heard...He does everything that's on the page but he then adds quite a few expressive markings that Elgar seems not to have had space to include but which he intended
Utterly authentic...this performance is evidence that this is a thoroughly international work of the early 20th century...
[AMcG] Beautifully expressive...tremendous virtuosity...gripping and gritty...
[JPE] Ehnes inspires [Davis] to produce one of his most energetic and highly coloured Elgar recordings - it's already an excellent Elgar discography but this stands out...the Philharmonia is very responsive and luxuriously toned...the symbiotic relationship between conductor and soloist is well demonstrated by the slow movement... [which is] poignant but balmy...
[AMcG] ...It doesn't feel like a live recording in the wrong sense..there's a sort of perfection, a beautifully honed quality...
[JPE] It has the the perfection of the studio but the liveliness and immediacy of a live performance is also strongly evident.... a perfomance that I am sure is going to be heard many times over the years as a model of an exceptionally intelligent and sensitive approach to the work.
Sunday Telegraph 2.12.07 - Michael Kennedy ****
The Canadian violinist James Ehnes plays this concerto with superb technical accomplishment, and he is equally impressive in the more extrovert episodes as in the intimate and amorous musing. With Sir Andrew Davis a sensitive collaborator and the Philharmonia responding wholeheartedly, this is a distinguished contribution to the Elgar discography. I would have given the disc five stars except that the recording, made in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, lacks the full body that such a passionate interpretation deserves. The disc is filled out with a lithe perfomrance of the early and adorable Serenade
International Record Review - December 2007 - Piers Burton Page
Last things first. Paradoxical as it may sound, the fantastic and fantastical 'cadenza accompagnata' which is such an extraordinary moment or rather, five minutes or more at the end of the last movement of the Elgar Violin Concerto, feels here like its centrepiece: the musical and emotional climax of a performance that is superbly played and accompanied, deeply thoughtful and respectful, and (I hope) destined for a long life in the catalogue.
The Canadian violinist James Ehnes seems from what one reads and hears to have a very probing mind: I say that on (for instance) the basis of the fact that he chose to play the Elgar Violin Sonata at this year's Proms Chamber Music; and maybe it's true that you need considerable exposure to Elgar to play the Concerto appropriately. The comparison above is one which, 30 years on, I have always had mixed feelings about, because it, too, is beautifully articulated and superbly recorded, and has the benefit of all Boult's ripe late wisdom and of Haendel's rich sound: but it is often very slow, with a self-indulgent quality that is the last thing you ever get from Elgar himself. Or from Ehnes and Andrew Davis. The fantasy and imagination and delicacy of that final cadenza are realized with loving simplicity and understanding.
Ehnes's unflashy virtuosity we have long since recognized in the unflagging cascades of notes in the first movement, but the tricky balancing act here in the cadenza between soloist and accompaniment should not go without mention. Davis and the Philharmonia are throughout most sensitive in support, aided by a concert-hall balance that is, I think, ideal: the soloist not too glamorized, the winds in particular set slightly back from him, but their moments of delicate interplay not glossed over. (You would never know there was an audience, I think.)
The slow movement, too, is very fine: once again, it feels very natural and steady, not swooning melodramatically but instead ruminative, free when it needs to be and capturing to perfection that withdrawn quality in Elgar that can sometimes prove so elusive. Once again, too, the accompaniment is thought-provoking. Elgar was of course a superb orchestrator but one does not necessarily think of him first as a colourist. Yet listening here, I was more than once aware of just what the trombones contribute to this movement, a gravity and solemnity that only add to its variety and richness. Elgar is often nobilmente (that difficult, indefinable word) even when he does not write it explicitly into the score. Ehnes and Davis surely know this.
The coupling is the evergreen little Serenade for Strings. 'Slight and light' the booklet note calls it, but that's wrong of course. The middle movement is nothing of the kind, rather an Elgarian elegy in his deepest vein, one of the earliest of those smaller pieces that can tug at the heart-strings with mysterious power. As it does here, not by any excess in the playing but by a lucid, limpid clarity a shapely bass line again and a certainty that, if you trust Elgar's markings and make his part-writing clear, the trick will work. It does. Either side of it, the Allegro is brisker than sometimes (but can take it), and not even Davis can stop the brief finale from seeming slightly perfunctory, after such beauty. It's not a chamber-sized performance, but the unanimity and warmth of the Philharmonia strings is a pleasure to hear.
Packaging and presentation are sober and restrained, as befits such a serious and thoughtful issue. Ehnes and the Elgar Concerto are its lynchpin, and if they seem like a 'slow burn' to start with, my hunch is that, over time, this performance will definitely prove one to live with.
Hi-Fi News and Record Review - January 2008
Canadian James Ehnes is one of several young violinists who have crossed the Atlantic to record this concerto with a British Orchestra. (Menuhin came first, of course, then Zukerman, Chung, Hahn. Perlman, though, recorded it in Chicago with Elgar-convert Daniel Barenboim.) He joined Sir Andrew’s 150th anniversary homage to the composer, and this coupling is from live performances/rehearsals at the Queen Elizabeth Hall given last May – incidentally the main work is new to the conductor’s broad Elgar discography....
Ehnes come closest to the spirit of the concerto than those fellow-Juilliard graduates. He deploys a wide range of tone colour, from light to dark; intonation is precise and he knows how to pace and project the solo part. The Philharmonia support is excellent too, notably eloquent in some of the writing for winds and horns, and Sir Andrew Davis balances the score expertly. It’s very different from the finicky indulgence of Kennedy/Rattle on EMI (now a budget reissue)
The Observer 11.11.07 - Stephen Pritchard
Elgar's violin concerto is his most intimately emotional piece, its ardent themes requiring total commitment from soloist and orchestra. James Ehnes plays with supreme assurance and tenderness, particularly in the central andante, the essence of the work's enigmatic inscription: 'Here is enshrined the soul of...? It seems clear today that the mysterious dedicatee was pianist Alice Stuart-Wortley, the 'other Alice' in his life. Andrew Davis conducts with instinctive understanding of this hymn to a muse and brings real sunshine to the charming 'Serenade for Strings'.
The Sunday Times 28.10.07 Stephen Pettit ****
I’m mystified that the major labels aren’t, as far as I know, vying to secure the services of James Ehnes. He plays Elgar’s Violin Concerto with an alchemic mix of passionate intensity and clear-headed intelligence, lavishing upon this spacious, hyper-romantic work a sound of staggeringly rich, luscious beauty, from first note to last. There’s a tremendous impetus to the first movement, while the slow movement has a tenderness and freedom that surely come straight from the heart. Ehnes is both technically and musically in total command.
Ottawa Citizen - 10.11.07 Richard Todd
Elgar's 1910 Violin Concerto in B minor is not as well-known as his much later concerto for the cello. A generation ago we almost never heard it, but today there are at least a dozen recordings in the catalogue.
Canadian violinist James Ehnes, who will be in the National Arts Centre's Southam Hall with the Toronto Symphony Tuesday evening, has just released his take on the concerto. His collaborators are the Philharmonia Orchestra and a former conductor of the TSO, Andrew Davis.
This recording goes straight to the head of the class in every department. Ehnes's technique is so secure that he can focus his attention on projecting the drama and logic of the score, and this he does like few others.
Davis and the Philharmonia are right on side with him. It's likely that this CD will appeal even to listeners who don't normally care for Elgar, especially since it includes an unusually spirited and lovely account of the composer's Serenade for Strings.
Toronto Star - 13.11.07 ****
The 31-year-old Manitoba native is well-matched with conductor Andrew Davis (leading London's Philharmonia Orchestra) in glowing, gimmick-free performances of two works by the great Edward Elgar (1857-1934): The Violin Concerto and the Serenade for Strings.
Musical Criticism.com - Dominic McHugh 21.10.07 *****
A leading soloist, conductor and orchestra have come together to record Elgar's Violin Concerto for the latest release from the independent Onyx label, and the results are nothing less than enthralling.
Not only is it practically impossible to fault the performance from a technical point of view, the level of musicianship and interpretative imagination is extraordinarily high.
Now in his early thirties, the Canadian violinist James Ehnes has already taken the world by storm, including appearances with the LSO, the BBC SO, the RSNO and all the major American orchestras. His previous release of the Barber, Korngold and Walton Violin Concertos on the Onyx label was widely admired and became 'Record of the Week' in The Daily Telegraph. But this new recording takes him into a completely new realm. The strong technique, which was evident from the start, has now been ideally matched to a more deeply felt (though never ostentatious) performance style. Together with his natural musicianship, Ehnes seems to have a winning combination for this, one of Elgar's greatest masterpieces.
It helps that he's been paired with Sir Andrew Davis, one of the world's leading interpreters of the music of Elgar, and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The recording was taken live in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 17 and 20 May 2007 during the orchestra's exile from the Festival Hall and the level of intimacy in the QEH really enhances the performance, which is never emptily flashy.
Davis creates nothing short of poetry in the lengthy orchestral introduction to the first movement, immaculately rendered by the Philharmonia in unusually ardent form. From the moment of Ehnes' entry the violinist treats the music with a kind of rhapsodic spontaneity, neither afraid to pull the time around a little nor overindulgent in this respect. The quiet spaciousness of the solo exposition gives way to a fiery developmental section, concluding with a thrillingly precise descending chromatic scale. The procedure is repeated and the movement ends in bold certainty.
Gentle lyricism of the sort that people usually associate most closely with Elgar's musical personality characterises the second movement. Ehnes's relaxed phrasing matches the mood, while the sheer beauty of tone he creates on his 'Ex Marsick' Stradivarius of 1715 (loaned by the Fulton Collection) is what shines through the most in this movement. Onyx's engineers have worked wonders in capturing the intimacy of the violin sound, which allows Ehnes to scale down the volume and concentrate on minute details. The high harmonics here and double stopping in the finale are breathtaking. This is characteristic of a performer for whom the technical aspects of a piece never dominate musical expression.
Meanwhile, the third movement takes us to even greater heights. Eschewing the temptation to turn the piece into a mere showcase of bravado, Ehnes uses the tortured scales and arpeggios to make the music into a matter of life or death. Davis , too, ensures that drama and detail are the essence of the performance, balancing the woodwinds and brass very subtly with the strings so that there is no undue prominence of one instrumental timbre. Nevertheless, the violinist's formidable technique really does help to make this a spellbinding experience.
Filling out the recording to just over an hour is Elgar's Serenade for Strings, op.20. The Philharmonia's splendidly drilled string section revels in the challenge of the work, which receives a polished and bracing performance.
But without doubt the main attraction is James Ehnes' very special rendition of the Violin Concerto, a 'must have' for all serious collectors of romantic violin music.