James Ehnes Excels in Barber’s Violin Concerto. Dutoit and the RPO Impressive in Berlioz and Tchaikovsky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Barber, Tchaikovsky: James Ehnes (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 8.11.2011 (CG)

Berlioz: Le Corsair (1844)
Samuel Barber:
Violin Concerto op. 14 (1939)
Symphony no 5 in E minor, op. 64 (1888)

Appearances by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London with its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Charles Dutoit, are comparatively infrequent, so this concert which included the Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber with the Canadian violinist, James Ehnes, and warhorses by Berlioz and Tchaikovsky, was something to look forward to. The RPO is sometimes considered the Cinderella of the London orchestras; it receives a fraction of the Arts Council funding of the others, and is thus forced to play a repertoire which is often more overtly popular, and to embark on tours far and wide, resulting in a schedule which most musicians would find exhausting. Nevertheless, it boasts some of the very finest players in the land, and gets through a fantastically varied range of music – everything from well-worn classics to film scores and rock concerts. It is a tribute to the management that in the face of considerable difficulties, it continues to flourish and put in some fine performances.

Berlioz’s overture  Le Corsair  (the Pirate) could be considered something of an orchestral test piece. Composed in 1844 when Berlioz was on holiday in Nice, it is a swashbuckling extravaganza in which precision in the fast passages is the keynote. In this performance, Dutoit set off at a fast but not ridiculous pace, the strings impressing with their dashing scalic passages. The curious rhythmic wind and horn passages were perhaps less clear, but the long slower melody was well done and overall the performance was bright and secure; if I felt that the conductor wished to get even more action from the orchestra in the fast passages than he actually received, it is a very minor carp.

The Barber Violin Concerto has an unusual history. The work was commissioned by a wealthy businessman for his young protegé, Iso Briselli, but when Barber presented the first two movements, the violinist declared the solo part too easy. As if to say “I’ll show em!” Barber then wrote a dazzling finale, only to find that the same violinist pronounced it unplayable. The businessman wanted his money back, but Barber had already spent it, and, now desperate, presented the concerto to the virtuoso Oscar Shumsky, who decided it was indeed playable. The work finally received its first performance in 1941 by Albert Spalding with Eugene Ormandy conducting.

Samuel Barber was a somewhat reclusive man, who would have no truck with the American avant-garde, led by figures such as John Cage and Morton Feldman. Instead, he composed a series of essentially lyrical works in an easily comprehensible idiom which caught the public imagination and secured an important place for him alongside other mainstream Americans, such as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson. James Ehnes won plaudits for his recording of Barber’s concerto together with those by Walton and Korngold in 2008 (review), and it was not surprising to find that his approach to the first two movements seemed to be just perfect. His purity of tone was beautifully suited to Barber’s melodic lines, with ample projection but nothing feeling forced or indulgent. Dutoit and the RPO accompanied carefully with exactly the right gently wistful tone colours, and John Anderson’s expressive oboe solo in the second movement – pale, but touching – was particularly noteworthy. In the last movement, all hell suddenly broke loose, with the violinist scurrying around and the orchestra giving their two-pennyworth; it’s phenomenally difficult, brilliantly effective, and utterly delightful. Ehnes was simply marvellous – and so was the RPO.

As if to show that he could also fly through the more traditional virtuoso violin repertory on his Stradivarius, Ehnes played the famous Paganini Caprice no. 24 with complete accuracy and fantastic panache. The audience was enthralled.

And so to the major warhorse of the evening – Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Composed in 1888, when Tchaikovsky and others were convinced that his powers were waning, it was not immediately successful and this didn’t help the composer’s mental state one little bit; he was to die, tormented, five years later. Critical reaction was hostile, even in the US and Europe, but how times have changed; nowadays it is one of the most popular of all symphonies, and understandably so. The tunes for which the composer is famed are marvellous, and the construction, with its recurrent motto theme heard in different guises in all four movements, no less so.

Dutoit’s reading had plenty of high points. We were treated to some lovely phrasing from the woodwind, and a pleasingly rich string tone throughout. The famous horn solo in the lovely slow movement was beautifully played, if perhaps a tiny bit loud, and in the third movement there was much grace and great élan from the strings in the fast passages. I would have preferred a gap between the third and last movements, and a slightly more stately tempo for the opening motto theme in the finale, but in the fast sections the playing was simply hair-raising, with fantastically incisive work from the brass. So exciting, and just what was needed to get the blood coursing on this damp, dreary November evening.

Christopher Gunning