Thursday 16 June 2011

Review: Ehnes's Mendelssohn

Violin Concerto in E minor

James Ehnes (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society

ONYX 4060

We are very lucky that Canadian violinist James Ehnes is so frequent a visitor to this country; certainly, this recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, recorded live in Warwick with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is testament to the great work that he continues to do with British groups.  Ehnes’s view of the Mendelssohn concert is fiery and impassioned, while being admirably tender at turns.  He is imploring and swift in the opening melody, but the first movement’s second theme is fragile and intentionally hesitant.  Throughout the Andante, Ehnes holds the long melody with a beautiful legato, and his finale sparkles:  a wonderful little shift in the left hand into the finale’s lyrical countermelody [2:29] is evidence of the ease with which he is able to shape the music.  He does occasionally push a little too hard such as at 4:31, where his power produces one of the very few moments of intonational uncertainty.  But his sound on the whole is wonderfully warm, which is matched throughout by the Philharmonia.  A very quiet audience and a good reverberant acoustic round off this very attractive performance.     

Ehnes pairs one of Mendelssohn’s final masterpieces with his very earliest, the miraculously precocious Octet of 1825.  No matter how often one hears the piece, it remains difficult to believe that it is the work of a sixteen year old composer.  Too advanced to be considered juvenilia, the Octet nevertheless exudes the passions of youth, something which mature musicians can fail to grasp.  Ehnes and his colleagues from the Seattle Chamber Music Society certainly present an immaculate account of the Octet, but I’m not sure they capture the music’s exuberance. 

It begins very promisingly, with Ehnes and co setting an ideal tempo for the opening Allegro moderato.  This is a lean and subtly shaped performance, the virtues of which suit the first movement very well.  But I have doubts about this ensemble’s conception of the remaining three movements; that youthful fervour is largely absent from the Andante and the Scherzo lacks a vital degree of sparkle.  That’s not to say that there aren’t many fine moments; Ehnes, for example, dispatches the fiendishly difficult trilling passage at the centre of the Scherzo with nonchalant ease, but he generally fails to lead the ensemble into the dynamic extremes specifically requested by Mendelssohn in the score.  This is a good performance of the Octet, but not a great one; my own preference is for Hausmusik London’s performance on Virgin Veritas (5618092), though some will dislike the period instruments and lowered pitch.

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