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James Ehnes: Homage

img  Tobias Fischer

   This entertaining violin compendium, with Canadian-violinist James Ehnes, focuses on the evolution of the violin and viola from an educational and artistic perspective. Homage is a CD+DVD companion totaling nearly 3 hours of recorded material, with a single mission: to highlight up close and intimate the brilliance in craftsmanship and acoustic beauty behind a dozen vintage-series violins and violas. To this day, violin-making remains part of a proud four-hundred year long tradition that once sprouted in the Northern regions of Italy. From the viola of Gasparo Bertolotti dating back to as earlyas the 1560s up to the beautifully crafted violins of Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri from the early decades of 1700, the instruments featured in this recording comes from a priceless collection belonging to American Philanthropist David Fulton and his wife Ann Fulton. When a string instrument of this vintage is claimed to be ‘original’ (ie. in all its parts), it refers to the instrument’s top, its back, its side, as well as its scroll. To be able to experience any one of these fine master’s instruments today can most definitely be any violin/viola aficionado’s dream come true, let alone the dozen of them all on one go. Homage is a treasure trove of beautiful music written by skilled composers and violinists from the past century, and is a rare collection commendable not only from the viewpoint of these vintage instruments, but performed artistically compelling by one of Canada’s most formidable violin talents. He is a young musician with an old soul, and his name is James Ehnes. 

   A question that may stumbled many readers’ minds is: “Why has string-instrument making reached its peak at this particular period in history, spanning the decades between the late 17th to 18th centuries, just as the Age of the Renaissance was brewing in the air?” To attempt an explanation, Ehnes proposes a compelling hypothesis in the liner notes of this recording, suggesting that “…making string instruments is not just a craft, but also an art-form, where it inspired one another to create works of unequalled greatness.” Just as music continued to develop throughout the ages in history, so have its musical instruments. Today’s flutes, for instance, bear little familiarity to the flutes played by the Greeks of ancient times, while Baroque Masters like Bach, Handel and Scarlatti would have been overwhelmed by the capacity in today’s concert pianos. However, of all the musical instrument families, the string instruments remain an outstanding exception. The most celebrated violins, violas and cellos are those that were made hundreds of years ago “There is simply no other profession where the best tool for the job is hundred of years old,” as Ehnes describes, and the family of string instruments certainly hit the jackpot here. It is exactly for this reason that the present Homage recording comes into existence. It is a testament from avid advocators like James Ehnes and David Fulton to bring to full appreciation this lasting legacy of the “Golden Age of Violin-Making.”

   The disc opens with a dazzling eighteen tracks that capture each of the violins from the Fulton Collection under the spotlight. It begins with a performance of Bazzini’s La Ronde des Lutins performed on Ehnes’ very own ‘Marsick’ Stradivarius from 1715 that he has under extended loan from the Fulton’s. It then continues with a scintillating trip through six of de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, arranged by Polish violin virtuoso Paul Kochanski, and displayed by Ehnes under six unique Guarneri and Stradivari violins. In each of these Spanish songs, one could readily appreciate the vintage qualities that define each of these instruments: a rare combination of rich tonal beauty, vivid range of colours, and the clarity which sound is projected. A different bow is matched to a unique Fulton instrument, which Ehnes has determined it would be most ideal for the music. As Ehnes had once explained in an interview: “it is not uncommon to find an instrument with one or even two of these traits [mentioned above] in abundance, but to find all these elements in the same instrument is rare.” Interspersed one finds Ehnes enjoying his time in each of Elgar’s La Capricieuse and Salut d’amour, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, Sibelius’s Mazurka, and Tchaikovsky’s inevitable Melody (some very sensitive playing here using the Guarneri ‘del Gesù,’ 1752 ‘Lord Wilton’). But perhaps the most interesting are those virtuosic violin transcriptions that bring each of the instruments to their limits, as heard with Scott-Kreisler’s Lotus Land, Dinicu-Heifetz’s Hora Staccato, Wieniawski-Kreisler’s Étude-Caprice, Moszowski-Sarasate’s Guitarre, and de-Falla-Kreisler’s Danse Espagnole. There is also Kreisler’s Chansons Louis XIII and Pavane, which helps to give the overall violin selections a nice sense of balance and cross-referencing among repertoire with one that comes from a noted violinist-composer such as Fritz Kreisler.

   The unique violas from the Fulton Collection, one taken from each of Gasparo da Salò, Andrea Guarneri and Giuseppe Guadagnini spanning from three succeeding centuries, are then displayed by Ehnes in three subsequent tracks: Vaughan-Williams’ ever-loving Greensleeves, Benjamin-Primrose’s Jamaican Rumba and David-Vieuxtemps’ La Nuit. All of this music is played with such panache by Ehnes and ably accompanied by pianist Eduard Laurel, which it seems churlish to complain. Ehnes also saves the best for the last, and indeed, a fun but challenging exercise that I would urge any listeners with trained ears to engage: comparison tracks from Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. Here, Ehnes takes each of the individual violins and violas, and independently subject them under the same excerpt to feature their tonal character, acoustic range, and clarity in projection. Each of the instruments is able to bring so vividly a different charm and luxurious character to the excerpt they are subjected to, and it brings this very well-executed recital to a rousing close. The engineering gives the players some welcome breathing room, permitting Ehnes' lithe tone, with its seductive, fast vibrato, to emerge vividly from the speakers while still observing a good balance with the piano. A DVD with over 2 hours “behind the scene” and interview material accompanies this fine violin compendium. In the interview, Ehnes describes one of his missions as an artist is to “make fabulous music … the ‘set-up’ of a violin is everything. Any violin is capable of sounding really, really bad, so you spend your whole performing life trying to make a violin sound great or beautiful. And when you’ve got it right, the instrument speaks in a certain way. It is a magical thing … a thunderclap.” Very much indeed, Homage has in its own ways struck the recording market with as loud a thunderclap. A prize-winning document that is indispensable for any serious collector interested to discover one of humankind’s most intimate instruments.

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Homepage: James Ehnes
Homepage: Onyx Classics

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