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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto Op.15 (1938) [31:14]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.77 (1947) [35:51]
James Ehnes (violin)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England, 2-3 December 2012
ONYX 4113 [66:56]

James Ehnes is one of my favourite contemporary violinists. He has the killer combination of superb technique allied to marvellous musicianship and an ability to embrace a wide range of repertoire. All of which would seem to guarantee a fine disc here of an interesting coupling. Which is why I am scratching my head as to why this has left me somewhat underwhelmed. Ehnes' technique easily stands the slightly forensic nature of the Onyx recording. My main concern is a faint air of the routine that pervades the accompaniment.
 
This is especially true of the opening movement of the Britten. In Britten's centenary year it comes as no surprise that there has been an avalanche of recordings. This disc competes directly with a Chandos release featuring Tasmin Little. I have not heard that performance but it seems to have been well received and has a logical/interesting coupling of Britten's Piano Concerto. In whatever performance it is striking what a confidently assured work this is. Not that that means it is without flaws but simply that the young composer - just 25 when work on the piece began - is able to make big and sweeping musical gestures even if the work lacks the cumulative power of the more mature Shostakovich that shares the disc. Malcolm MacDonald’s typically lucid liner characterises the opening of the work as restless, melancholic and sensuous. I find Karabits strangely literally so that the swaying Spanish rhythm of much of the accompaniment is oddly foursquare and quite at odds with Ehnes' dynamism. If anything Ehnes over compensates and the solo line - while played with great technical brilliance - feels overly forceful. Direct comparison with either Lorraine McAslan on Collins (latterly Naxos), Ida Haendel on EMI or even Sergej Azizian in the IntenseMedia "Britten 100" box find all those players playing with greater sinuous fantasy. I rather like McAslan’s near reticent approach for this opening - there will be plenty of opportunities for dominant display in the work later. Apparently Britten started work on the piece having recently encountered the Berg violin concerto. Certainly it has an elegiac near sombre quality which allied to the extreme difficulty of the solo part has meant that it has not entered the repertoire in the way other early Britten works have.
 
The spiky second subject group suits Ehnes' dynamic approach better but even here the playing of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for all its commendable neatness lacks the urgent acidic bite it surely requires. When this subsides back to the languor of the opening theme - with the solo part taking over the accompanying role with the rhythmic cell and the massed violins playing the main melody - the playing sounds efficiently bland [track 1 - 5:50]. Perhaps others will detect a subtler hand at work than I. Again, comparisons to the above show a range of responses but I would say each is better than the one here. Interestingly, it is Haendel - also in Bournemouth - who is closest to Ehnes - less wistful than McAslan, less fluent than Azizian - but she benefits from a far more engaged conductor in Berglund and better integrated EMI analogue engineering.
 
The second movement Vivace is an immediate and substantial improvement - the music's devilish energy chiming with Ehnes' style just as it works against McAslan - the earlier apt reflectiveness now sounding simply cautious. Haendel - probably proving why her reading has endured in the catalogue - finds an ideal middle-way between either interpretative extreme. The closing movement reflects Britten's abiding fascination for a particular form; the Passacaglia. It flows directly from the extended cadenza that links the scherzo to the finale. For Ehnes the cadenza is a hugely impressive vehicle for virtuoso display. For me the pendulum swings back towards McAslan who gives little to Ehnes in sheer technical address but is more capricious. I rather like conductor Steuart Bedford's wearily heavy opening to the Passacaglia - a burdened tread that builds inexorably to a powerful climax before the soloist's furtive entrance. Against that Ehnes seems to tell no extra-musical story. There are clear pre-echoes of the Passacaglia Britten would write in Peter Grimes; there the inevitable repetition of the music's harmonic pattern giving a fateful inexorability to the drama. Does it seem too melodramatic to give the concerto a similar interpretation? Instinct tells me not - especially with the militaristic brass writing that pervades the instrumental textures. In response to this the soloist embarks on an ever more manic skittering display of passage-work; Haendel at her most impressive. Likewise the 1970s Bournemouth heavy brass loom over proceedings like some gathering storm - it makes for an overwhelming climax. Karabits by choosing a fractionally more flowing tempo misses out on the cathartic arrival and in fact the Onyx recording offers no substantial improvement on EMI's thirty-five year old effort. That being said the sheer quality of Ehnes' playing of the closing pages is irresistible. In fact, having spent considerable time in the company of this concerto - in its various versions - while writing this review my estimation of it as a work has increased. It’s certainly a work that deserves wider renown, even if that proves to be through recordings other than the one under consideration here.
 
The coupling of the Shostakovich First Concerto is interesting. They were a pair of composers who grew to have a great personal and professional mutual respect. Karabits seems more at ease with the musical and emotional landscape of this work. Again, I miss the visceral engagement that other conductors bring to this music. Written nearly a decade later than the Britten (1947) it was born into the storm of the Zhdanov decree with charges of "western-style formalism" being levelled at any work that was perceived as not conforming to Soviet ideals. Given that this work was the first extensively to explore its composer's fascination with motifs based on his own initials - DSCH - which was about as anti the collective ideal as one could get - it is no surprise that Shostakovich suppressed the score until Stalin was dead and artistic purges had died down. For all the skill of the Britten, the Shostakovich goes a step further and is a truly great work.
 
The four movements are titled Nocturne, Scherzo, Passacaglia (and cadenza), Burlesque. The opening Nocturne MacDonald characterises as having a "... cataleptic, almost mystical calm". What I find most mystifying about Karabits' accompaniment is a near total absence of dynamic gradation. Shostakovich's highly idiomatic scoring is full of subtle adjustments of dynamic and phrasing - the Bournemouth players produce a uniformly beautiful mezzo-something. Ehnes' is guilty of this type of dynamic generalisation too - but having said that so is dedicatee David Oistrakh on EMI accompanied by Shostakovich fils with the New Philharmonia. Big ‘but’ though: Oistrakh brings a wholly different level of emotional torque to his performance. This sense of the generalised makes the landscape of this movement hard to define. Shostakovich has written something that deliberately verges on the monotonous - there are minor undulations and subtle valleys to observe but no great Alpine peaks. That being said it requires a super-sensitive approach to the nuances that there are or an ability to hold a level of focused intensity that is beyond this interpretation. To be sure, all is present and correct and finely played but only in direct comparison - again - do the shortcomings become clear.
 
Aside from Oistrakh, I listened to Vengerov with Rostropovich on Warner and Mordkovich with Jarvi on Chandos. For whatever reason, those three Russian players all find a chilled lamenting quality that eludes Ehnes. Mordkovich - her disc won a Gramophone award I seem to recall - is willing to risk all in the search for a 'meaning' in this music that transcends the notes alone. Alongside her Ehnes feels emotionally reticent. As with the Britten, I have to stress that this might well be a slow-burn approach that others prefer finding Mordkovich or Haendel too overt even unsubtle. In the two scherzo movements - aided by his stunningly clean and articulate playing - Ehnes emphasises the mercurial and divisive elements. Next to him Mordkovich can sound 'rougher' - as much emotionally as technically. She also has a tendency to strain at the collective leash, pushing ever onwards, leaving one with a sense of the music teetering on the edge of a precipice. For other works and other composers this palpable danger might be unsettling and simply wrong - in Shostakovich it adds to the theatre of the work and I prefer it. Karabits' well-drilled and very neat Bournemouth players don't sound as though they are risking anything. In isolation the work/recording impresses because it is a wonderful piece well played. Alongside versions that dig deeper into the soul of the work it is found wanting.
 
Overall, an unexpected disappointment. Ehnes is too fine a violinist and musician to ever produce anything poor but the fact remains that for all the technical brilliance on display many other performances dig deeper into the souls of these two fine works. 

Nick Barnard
 
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich violin concertos

Britten discography & review index: Violin concerto



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