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James Ehnes: Tchaikovsky

img  Tobias Fischer

Recorded at the Sydney Opera House in December 2010, this latest Onyx release featuring James Ehnes continues a trajectory of rare musicality and probing adventurism left by this Canadian violinist. His latest Chandos release of Bartók Concerti (CHAN 10690, rave reviewed all-round, of which an example can be found here) focuses on the lyrical and intellectual aspects of the Hungarian composer’s compositions. In this all-Tchaikovsky program, Ehnes presents to listeners a narrative, a “musical biography,” into the emotions and turmoil during Tchaikovsky’s life at the time of these compositions. In doing so, Ehnes delves into the technical elements and humanistic language underpinning this music. It is an album mixed with triumph and sweet melancholy, narrated all in music without words. Separated only by a span of 3 months in recording dates, the Bartók album between Nov.2010-Feb.2011 and the Tchaikovsky album in Dec.2010, the latter surprisingly stands out sonically over the notorious Chandos label. Perhaps, this lies in the fact a team of Onyx Engineers has diligently fine-tuned in post-recording sessions any imperfections in sonic details, especially in the 15min Souvenir gem, as a result of the internal envelope design of the recording venue.

   Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto clearly needs no introduction - it is irrefutably one of the three most performed violin concerti on the concert-stage/recording studios today (the Brahms and the Mendelssohn, being the other two). As mentioned in the notes by Philip Borg-Wheeler, one learns that this Concerto met early rejection as the composer’s First Piano Concerto, both of which eventually achieving wide-spread acclaim.  To what effect has James Ehnes held onto this tradition? During the past year, Ehnes has taken this Concerto as one of his concert pieces on tour, most recently in Toronto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In the concert performance and here in recording, Ehnes conveys a rhythmic thrust into the Allegro moderato in the first (and third, Allegro vivacissimo) movement, hinting to listeners that excitement rather than calamity will be the norm. The orchestra in this recording, the Sydney Symphony with its Tchaikovsky-exponent conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, provides a supportive and contrasting accompaniment. Particularly, the strings and woodwinds provide a colourful palette of atmospheric contrasts, over which Ehnes’ melody boldly affirms like a valedictorian address. The second movement, a Canzonetta in Andante, is a disguised lullaby in the Brahmsian tradition. Ehnes depicts it with his one of his signature singing tones, as if this was a moment of sweet reminiscences Tchaikovsky hesitated to put in words, but in musical writing.

   The other two pieces, the Sérénade mélancolique and the Valse-scherzo, are pieces flanking the Concerto and written between the three years in 1875-1877. Both pieces include a short cadenza, in which Ehnes presents in them with layers of musical richness and multi-faceted colours.  Switching gears from a grandeur and masculinity in style in the Concerto, these two gems are more contemplative in nature, first with a language of darkness as in the Sérénade, followed then by an air of spring-like hope and mischief in the Valse-scherzo. Ehnes’ interpretation on these pieces, while straightforward, offer introspection that makes these two gems stand out in bolder ways than the Concerto has in 30+ minutes.
   Switching roles as conductor to Ehnes’ earlier pieces to the role as pianist, Vladimir Ashkneazy joins forces with Ehnes on the final piece in this album, the “Souvenir d’un lieu cher.” The English translation of this piece is “Memory of a dear place.” Although it is not discussed by Mr. Borg-Wheeler in his liner notes, the Méditation piece is, in fact, Tchaikovsky’s early conception as the second movement to his Violin Concerto. This material eventually lays the foundation of what is to become three independent pieces – Méditation, Scherzo and Mélodie - known collectively as “Souvenir.” Interestingly, the “Souvenir” is the only known composition Tchaikovsky has ever explicitly written for the combination of these two instruments. Perhaps, this also explains why each of these pieces contains some of the most beautiful writings Tchaikovsky has ever written for either instrument. In retrospect, Tchaikovsky has infused a sort of “breath of life” into the melodic writing to each of these pieces, and delivers them effectively through the use of these complimentary instruments. Ehnes plays with exquisite taste and style, with a lustrous high D at the end of the Méditation like an echo from distant past. Then in the Scherzo, Ashkenazy and Ehnes engage in a playful dialogue that strengthens the rhythmical “bouncy” character of this piece. Finally, the Mélodie brings the air of sweet perfumes together, where Ashkenazy’s poetic accompaniment unites with Ehnes’ feathery-light, dolce-approach.

By: Patrick P. L. Lam

Homepage: James Ehnes
Homepage: Vladimir Ashkenazy
Homepage: Onyx Records

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