An Assured Elgar Concerto from James Ehnes

CanadaCanada Britten, Elgar, Berlioz and Respighi: James Ehnes, violin, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey, conductor; Orpheum Theatre Vancouver, 14.6.2014 (GN)

Britten: Passacaglia from ‘Peter Grimes’. Op. 33b
Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61
Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9
Respighi: Pines of Rome

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s final concert of the season appropriately featured premier Canadian violinist James Ehnes performing the Elgar concerto.  It is always an event when Ehnes appears at home, now being one of the world’s most celebrated violinists and having almost iconic status here, doubly so since his 2008 recording of the Elgar concerto with Sir Andrew Davis was given worldwide praise and won the Gramophone award for ‘Best Concerto Recording of the Year’.  In previous performances here, Ehnes has given us a memorable Mozart concerto cycle and a wonderful Brahms concerto, collaborating as well with Bramwell Tovey and the VSO in the Grammy and Juno-award winning recording of Barber, Korngold, and Walton concertos.

One certainly had to be taken by the sheer beauty of the violinist’s playing right from his opening entry — the beautiful long clean lines, the wonderful warm silkiness in the tone, the seamless phrasing.  And the staggering technical address, so easily up to the work’s most formidable technical challenges. From the outset, the orchestra was indeed ready to provide all the contrasting moods, thrust and flourish that this great work calls for.  Ehnes nonetheless seemed to go on a slightly different route, carrying a smooth, mellifluous posture well into the opening movement, always bringing out a long and sweet lyrical line but perhaps playing down some of the Elgarian struggle and doubt that has made this part so telling in the hands of violinists from Menuhin to Kennedy.  Certainly, there was plenty of attack in the violinist’s playing at the right points, but I still found this somewhat light on passion and urgency. All the important scurrying upward and downward runs were executed with perfection but, again, one got a methodical feeling from them rather than one of real exuberance.  So, quite a beautiful, but ultimately emotionally restrained, reading of this great movement, less personal, heartfelt and tender, and indeed more effortless, than one might be used to.  If anything, it was the orchestra that was the custodian of sinew and feeling here.

 The second movement featured some of the best Elgar conducting that I have seen from Maestro Tovey; suspended, concentrated and full of radiant feeling.  Ehnes certainly matched this with the most ravishing playing throughout.  Nonetheless, I eventually had worries about how well the sense of Elgarian ‘regret’ was conveyed.  With his honeyed tone and the use of slight portamento shaping, the veneer of sweetness in some passages actually took more me to Bruch or Glazunov, while still others seemingly hinted at Chausson, Wieniawski, or Korngold.  I missed the uniquely-Elgarian sense of inward utterance.  Applying this approach at the very end of the movement seemed to give a too soft-centered and sentimental result.

Ehnes’ technical wizardry in the final movement is well known, and he did not disappoint.  It would be almost impossible to visualize any living violinist who could articulate this movement with more clarity and assurance.  Absolutely thrilling to watch the moments of athletic virtuosity on display, and these carried the movement forward with considerable brilliance and inevitability.  The only qualification concerns the ending.  After all the adventure in this movement, the very personal and touching violin soliloquy at the end did not really follow as a natural release from everything before.  Here it came out as an almost separate, and somewhat sentimentalized, interlude.

 Overall, an impeccably articulated and sculpted traversal of this concerto but one I think that stubbornly remained some distance from Elgar’s ‘soul’ and, for that matter, from the intensity and concentration of the artist’s celebrated earlier recording.  Canada’s sweepstakes in the Elgar Concerto are very competitive of course, and, after all these years, I must say that I am probably still moved more by the almost-opposite interpretation of our distinguished Montreal resident for  almost forty years and the ‘Grande Dame of the Violin’, Ida Haendel.

 There could hardly be a more spectacular way to end a concert season than with Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  With trumpets in the balcony for the finale (playing only a few feet away from where I was sitting), I certainly gained a real feeling of tangibility here.  But there was also some nostalgia in closing with this work, since it used to be the calling-card of this symphony both at home and on tour under Maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama (now Conductor Laureate) from as early as the 1970’s.  Bramwell Tovey gave a particularly fine performance, penetrating the sensual, sultry textures of the middle movements to telling effect, and coaxing out some wonderfully expressive wind playing in the process (Roger Cole on oboe being especially notable).  The pulse of the closing Pines of the Appian Way was perfectly judged, power and momentum scaling up inexorably just as it should.  I should also remark on how good it was to hear Britten’s Passacaglia from ‘Peter Grimes’ as an enterprising opening piece.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014


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