James Ehnes and Marin Alsop:  A Rewarding Combination of Relaxed Efficiency and Striving Energy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók, Korngold and Rachmaninov: James Ehnes (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), Barbican Hall London, 7.6.2015 (CS)

Bartók: Divertimento for Strings, Sz113
Korngold: Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, Op.45


At the Wigmore Hall two weeks ago, Canadian violinist, James Ehnes and his accompanist, Andrew Armstrong gave a recital of music for piano and violin dating from the years 1917-18 (review).  Now joining the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop at the Barbican Hall for the latest instalment of the orchestra’s International Violin Festival, Ehnes turned his attention from the years of the First World War to those of the Second, giving a breathtakingly assured performance of Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto, in a programme devoted to compositions by European émigrés to the United States.

It was Benjamin Schmid’s performance of Korngold’s Concerto at the 2004 Salzburg Festival that did so much to rehabilitate the work to the ‘standard’ concert repertoire, after it had been largely overlooked since the premiere by Jascha Heifetz in 1947.  Ehnes had the full measure of the work’s luscious Romanticism and dreamy sentimentality, but stayed – just – on the right side of schmaltz.  The tone of his 1715 ‘Marsick’ Stradivari violin is exquisite, particularly in the upper registers and he used every ounce of the violin’s mellifluous beauty to craft the luxuriant long threads of Korngold’s melodies (many of which are borrowed from the composer’s film scores).  The work’s virtuosic demands caused no problems and were negotiated with impeccable stylishness; even the leaping motifs and resolute double-stopping of the first-movement cadenza were elegantly delivered, and the violinist’s roulades culminated on a sustained high C of crystalline serenity.

From the lyrical arch of the opening bars of the Moderato Nobile, Ehnes combined firmness of tone with delicate shading, the rising melody both aspiring and wistful.  The phrasing was supple, and the expressive dissonances were sensitively emphasised by Alsop, who made sense of the movement’s fairly free form, taking the LSO on a journey through different colour-scapes as the violin poured out its song.

The Romance was full of yearning and Mahlerian pathos (the poignant melody is derived from Korngold’s Academy Award-winning score for Anthony Adverse, a 1936 film about an orphan who struggles to overcome the adversities of life in 19th-century America).  Alsop and Ehnes created a chamber-music intimacy, as the violin meandered freely through its arabesques, in an outpouring of absorbed reflection.

The fast and furious Allegro assai vivace swept aside the pervasive contemplative air of the first two movements.  Ehnes’ spiccato quavers danced with grace and light above the trilling cellos and flute, and the soloist’s bravura passagework was effortlessly mastered – and matched, too, by the individual members of the LSO.  The orchestra was suitably swash-buckling in the folky second theme (taken from Korngold’s score for the film of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper), and Alsop shaped the mercurial structure effectively.

There was one brief moment when I sensed the hint of an incipient smile from Ehnes, in one of the more ‘Hollywood-inspired’ passages; but on the whole the violinist was the embodiment of unruffled nonchalance.  But this is ebullient music which does not take itself entirely seriously, as the grinding dissonances of the concluding bars, topped off with a ‘That’s all folks!’ cadence make evident.  Ehnes had given us an abundance of lyricism and virtuosity; it would have been good to have had some mischief too.  Similarly, the encore – the theme from Schindler’s List, accompanied by the LSO – offered further sentimentality. It was in keeping with the cinematic origins of the concerto, and exquisitely played, but had nothing further to reveal.

The Korngold Concerto was preceded by a work which balanced darker emotions with joy, and which demonstrated the prowess of the LSO’s own string players.  Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings was one of the last works that the composer wrote before leaving Europe for the USA in 1939.  The work employs a ‘concerto grosso’ form with its dialogue between a solo quartet and the ripieno strings – although, of course, Bartók reimagines the form in an entirely individual way.  Alsop was alert to its complexities and details, giving a steady, clear beat but flexibly negotiating the rhythmic cross-divisions.

The Allegro ma non troppo was spirited but sweet-toned.  The textures were lucid, there was some lovely pianissimo playing from what was a large group of string players, and I loved the way that the melodic lines searched their way out of the motivic fabric.  The slow second movement served as a moving reminder of the turmoil that troubled Europe at this time, beginning with a dark semi-tonal murmur in the lower strings before the entry of the muted violins’ twisting melody.  Repetitive rhythmic motifs in the double basses, swinging weightily like a primeval pulse, served to anchor the meandering lines above.  The Allegro assai sprang into life, propelled by dancing quavers and some springy pizzicato playing.  The central fugato section began gracefully, building to a captivating section (un-conducted) for the solo quartet, which showcased first a quicksilver quasi-cadenza from leader Roman Simovic and then some striking playing by Tim Hugh, the LSO’s lead cellist. After a tongue-in-cheek polka episode, Alsop let the LSO off the leash for a thrilling rush to the close.

There was more virtuosity after the interval in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1945) in which instrumental solos by a succession of wind and brass players impressed.  Alsop began in a spirit of grim resolve, driving forward the sardonic march of the Non Allegro with surprising heft, the weightiness brightened by punchy horn and brass interjections, and alleviated by silky solo from oboe, clarinet and horn.  The introduction of the alto saxophone’s restrained, elegiac theme introduced a welcome respite and tranquillity, and following the recapitulation the fullness of the string vibrato brought warmth to the end of the movement, a passage which includes a quotation from Rachmaninov’s own First Symphony, which had had a calamitous première in 1897 and had since languished, practically unknown.

Snarly rasps from horns and trumpets introduced the second movement, and the parodic waltz lilted in sinuous fashion, with lovely solos from clarinet, cor anglais and oboe.  Alsop controlled the unsettled rhythms well, but more emphasis on the asymmetries and piquant harmonies would have created a more chilling sense of macabre unease. There was more drama in the finale, Lento assia – Allegro vivace: pounding strings stirred a furious, demonic energy, but the inner lines were always audible within the storm.  The middle section was mournful before the return of the ‘dance of death’ initiated the climactic conclusion.

The LSO strings gave their all and during the evening there was much virtuosic individual and ensemble playing to enjoy.  I felt that Alsop didn’t need to work so hard, though; she conducted with vigorous muscularity, a hyperactive left hand, and huge sweeps of the baton, but while she certainly urged total commitment from her players, the LSO would surely have reached these musical heights without being driven with such incessant force.  It struck me that the evening had presented two opposing musical approaches: Ehnes’ relaxed efficiency and Alsop’s striving energy – odd bedfellows perhaps, but here combining in musically rewarding ways.

Claire Seymour

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