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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D [42:56]
Romance No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra [6:40]
Romance No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra [8:08]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rondo in A for violin and orchestra [13:33]
James Ehnes (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 2016, Liverpool Philharmoinc Hall
ONYX 4167 [71:21]

James Ehnes is the finest of fiddlers, and prolific into the bargain, so it’s a bit of a surprise to discover that this is his first recording of the Beethoven concerto.  I’ve loved his recent recordings of concertos by Tchaikovsky and Mozart, to name but two sets, and I’m pleased to report that this one is every bit as fine; worthy, in fact, to stand alongside some of the finest in the catalogue.

The brilliance of Ehnes’ approach comes from the scale and balance of his performance, and for much of that we have to thank Andrew Manze as well.  It's a modern, full-scale symphony orchestra with the weight of sound which that suggests, but the combination of grandeur and elegance produces one of the most successfully balanced Beethoven sounds I've heard in years. The winds that open the concerto are proudly modern but also very sensitive, and the violins that take up the tune from them sound large scale (and large in number), as does the ensuing orchestral outburst.

This is all to the good, however. I loved the way Andrew Manze (a violinist himself, let us not forget) crafts the orchestral sound so as to support the soloist in a proudly solid, muscular way, while at the same time providing plenty of space and air to allow the soloist to do his thing. There is, for example, a defiant majesty to the rising and falling phrases that end the exposition, as, there is to the longer tutti section that provides the bridge into the development section, and the orchestral climaxes are given the space to be great.

Ehnes himself matches Manze’s approach with a full blooded, Romantic approach which is much more, to my ears, in the mould of Itzhak Perlman than, say, Isabelle Faust. But, dash it, it works! I found myself bathing in the sound and the interpretation, allowing myself to enjoy the work rather than judging its historicism in the way I felt compelled to with Anton Steck’s recent version.

Ehnes is probably my favourite violinist working today, a poet of the instrument, but also an understated hero of it. He's one of those artists whose podium presence is so understated you almost think he wants to wish himself out of sight altogether. The music sits front and centre of all he does, and you can tell that he and Manze’s collaboration has been one of deep thought, careful preparation and genuine consensus. I loved the shimmer of poignancy that comes over the movement at the violin’s minor key counter-theme (12:07 into the first movement), and then the gently questioning way that Ehnes prepares the way for the magisterial return of the first theme at the launch of the development. He plays Kreisler’s cadenza, and does so with a level of poetry and unshowy elegance that it rarely receives, as if underplaying his own skill in the name of the musical argument. His playing of the second theme in the first movement coda seems to float down from above, putting me in mind of the great Benedictus movement from the Missa Solemnis, before Manze puts three forceful full-stops on the first movement.

The Larghetto, on the other hand, opens with a sound as soft-focused, almost muffled, as the first movement was assertive. The violinist seems to be toying with his orchestral counterparts through the first few variations, until the introduction of his heavenly counter-melody [4:32], which here drips with vibrato, but in a way that makes it richly luxuriant rather than gloopy. The violin then seems to float gently upwards as the second movement dissolves into the third which, after another artful cadenza, he plays like a rustic dance, something Manze backs up with a rollicking swagger in the orchestra which will be too much for some but which I really liked. The minor key theme of the second episode has a playfulness to it that I found very winning, and from that point a skittishness sets in that is determined to bring out the lighter side of the composer, something we should be grateful for. There is an exhilaration to the score’s final pages which brought a huge grin to my face, with the violin and orchestra engage in a sort of cosmic dance that is utterly life affirming.

Their approach to the Romances is refreshingly unsentimental, adopting a fairly fast tempo and a tenor that is direct without ever being brusque. The double-stopping in No 1, for example, is done without any particular spotlighting, and the focus in No 2 is on the lyricism of the melody rather than on the showiness of the technique. Schubert’s A major Rondo is here confirmed not only as a more substantial piece than Beethoven’s Romances, but also a tremendous piece of fun, with a sunny lyricism to it that I found utterly beguiling.  It makes you yearn for the Schubert concerto that never was.

However, make no mistake: the Beethoven concerto is the star here, and Ehnes and Manze have given us an interpretation for the ages, one that stands proudly alongside the competition and, in many cases, faces it down. If you’re looking for a recent, modern digital version, then I think this could well now be first choice.

Simon Thompson



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