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Homage (Cd & Dvd) / James Ehnes

Release Date: 01/13/2009 
Label:  Onyx   Catalog #: 4038   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Antonio BazziniManuel de FallaSir Edward ElgarCyril Scott,   ... 
Performer:  Eduard LaurelJames Ehnes
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 19 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HOMAGE • James Ehnes (vn, va1); Eduard Laurel (pn) • ONYX 4038 (78:39)

BAZZINI La ronde des lutins. FALLA Canciones populares españolas (arr. Kochanski). Danse espagnole (arr. Kreisler). La vida breve: Spanish Dance No. 1. ELGAR La capricieuse. Salut d’amour. SCOTT (arr. Kreisler) Lotus Land. DINICU (arr. Heifetz) Hora staccato. RAVEL Pièce en forme de habanera. WIENIAWSKI (arr. Kreisler) Étude-Caprice. SIBELIUS Mazurka. MOSZKOWSKI (arr. Sarasate) Guitarre. KREISLER Chanson Louis XIII and Pavane. TCHAIKOVSKY Mélodie, op. 42/3. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Fantasia on Greensleeves.1 BENJAMIN Jamaican Rumba.1 DAVID (arr. Vieuxtemps) Le désert: La nuit.

Comparison Tracks: BRUCH Scottish
Read more Fantasy: Excerpt on 9 violins; BERLIOZ Harold in Italy: Excerpt on 3 violas

& DVD, complete program; interviews with Ehnes and instrument owner Fulton (130:20)

Onyx’s “Homage” to the great violin-makers isn’t the first recording of its kind. The granddaddy of them all must be Decca’s “Glory of Cremona” from 1963, Decca DXE 179, later released on CD, without the photos, on The Strad 6, in which Ruggiero Ricci played on 15 violins, including a small comparison record in which he played the opening solo of Bruch’s First Violin Concerto on all of them. Bein and Fushi’s “Miracle Makers” raised the ante by including a beautifully produced book with their collection of 30, all played by Elmar Oliveira. Dynamic has produced tributes to individual violins, as well as a disc devoted to modern makers—Dynamic CDS 373— with the violins played, once again, by Ruggiero Ricci. But Onyx’s collection must be the first devoted to the violins in a single collection (David Fulton’s) and the first in which the violinist could get to know the instruments over a number of years before recording on them. That gave Ehnes a chance to match the violins individually with bows (also from Fulton’s collection). In addition, the great number of tracks allows listeners to compare the violins in different musical roles. Readers may be interested to know that he chose four different bows by Tourte and Peccatte for the nine violins and three violas. Like Ricci and Oliveira, Ehnes plays a single brief passage on each of the violins (from Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy) and on each of the violas (from Berlioz’s Harold in Italy). The small booklet gives a thumbnail history of each of the instruments, and the packaging illustrates each. Finally, a DVD contains the complete program, as well as interviews with Ehnes and Fulton.

I’ll discuss the individual tracks of the CD schematically and somewhat sketchily, offering first impressions that could change chameleon-like with each hearing (that’s what happens when you hear violins seriatim). But first, the instruments:

Violins: Stradivari: La Pucelle, 1709; Baron d’Assignies, 1713; Marsick, 1715; Baron Knoop, 1715; Duke of Alba, 1719; Sassoon, 1733. Pietro Guarneri (of Mantua): Shapiro, 1698. Guarneri del Gesù: King Joseph, 1737; Lord Wilton, 1742.

Violas: Gasparo da Salò: c. 1560. Andrea Guarneri: Count Vitale, ex Landau, 1676. Guiseppe Guadagnini: Rolla, 1793

Bazzini’s La ronde des lutins (Marsick Stradivari): a bright, dashing, if somewhat brittle, performance, with a silvery sheen.

Falla’s Canciones: “El paño murano” (King Joseph del Gesù): a smoldering performance strongly contrasting with the preceding one, the violin enhancing the burning ardor of the music and playing. “Nana” (Sassoon Stradivari): a similar performance, but the violin’s extremely subtle timbral range doesn’t produce an effect similar to that of the del Gesù in the preceding movement. “Canción” (Duke of Alba Stradivari: subtle and nuanced playing, with a tonal range to match, though generally brighter than that of the del Gesù. “Polo” (Lord Wilton del Gesù): without looking, I could easily identify the violin as a Guarneri, in this case, Menuhin’s. “Asturiana” (La Pucelle Stradivari): according to the notes, La Pucelle makes its first appearance here on recordings, with its somewhat straightforward, dark sound. Vuillaume set this violin up and made a perfect copy of it, which, having once belonged to Louis Kaufman, I’ve owned for 43 years. The Vuillaume sounds smoother and less congested. “Jota” (Baron Knoop Stradivari): bright sound matches the bright playing. According to the notes, Heifetz played this violin for about a year. The King Joseph del Gesù sounds more like him.

Elgar’s La capricieuse (Shapiro Pietro Guarneri): both the performance and the violin exhibit plenty of bite and a subtle diversity of nuance, but the violin hints at deeper and richer tonal resources, coming off well in this distinguished company even though it may not have so much “core” as do the del Gesùs.

Scott’s Lotus Land (King Joseph del Gesù): in this piece, so different from Falla’s Polo, Ehnes’s different approach draws a different kind of response from the instrument, though the soaring climaxes have a similar intensity.

Dinicu’s Hora staccato (Baron d’Assignies Stradivari): a glassy sound complements an equally glassy performance.

Ravel’s Pièce en forme de habanera (Marsick Stradivari): here’s the companion piece to Bazzini’s Ronde, laying bare the instrument’s estimable darker ranges.

Wieniawski’s Caprice, op. 18/4 (Shapiro Pietro Guarneri): this violin, which sounded so responsive in Elgar’s La capricieuse, seems here a bit hollow in the arpeggios that climb on the G string.

Sibelius’s Mazurka, op. 81/1 (Duke of Alba Stradivari): the violin sounded exceptionally subtle in Falla’s “Canción”; this piece and performance allow for a more complete exploration of its lower registers.

Moszkowski’s Guitarre (Baron d’Assignies Stradivari): the performance may vary stylistically from that of Hora staccato, but the “glassy” quality of the violin remains identifiable.

Elgar’s Salut d’amour (La Pucelle Stradivari): with its higher tessitura, Elgar’s favorite doesn’t lead the violinist into the lower ranges that sounded somewhat clotted in the violin in Falla’s “Asturiana.”

Kreisler’s Chanson Louis XIII and Pavane (Sassoon Stradivari): the warmth of the Chanson should allow a full unfolding of a range of sound that seemed so wide in Falla’s “Nana.” And the Pavane demonstrates just how responsive the violin can be to a more aggressive bow stroke.

Tchaikovsky’s Mélodie, op. 42/3 (Lord Wilton Guarneri): compare this performance with Milstein’s on a Stradivari: here the sound’s more suggestive and allusive, though Milstein’s playing itself remains incomparable, and, in this case, less mannered.

Falla’s Danse espagnole (Baron Knoop Stradivari): once again, perhaps because of what we know about this violin, it’s easy to hear why Heifetz may have been attracted to it—but also why he may not have stayed with it. Ehnes plays with a Heifetz-like steeliness.

Vaughan Williams’ s Fantasia (Gasparo da Salò viola): this viola must possess a very deep bottom, yet it’s smooth and hardly veiled; Ehnes produces a true, viola-like sound from it, not a violinist’s pallid imitation.

Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba (Rolla Guadagnini viola): a brighter viola sound complements a bright performance.

David’s “La nuit” (Count Vitale Andrea Guarneri viola): does this viola shine in its middle register, or could this be just an impression given by the piece and the performance? And does the tone become somewhat throaty, or might that also be an artifact of the piece and performance?

The comparison tracks provide few surprises. They’re the ones, according to Ehnes, that he usually uses to compare violins, and they’re long enough to allow an unfolding of the instrument’s tonal properties. But so skillfully did he choose the repertoire that these passages allow a register-by-register comparison, though these hardly reveal anything new. The Baron Knoop seems to stand out among the Stradivaris, though the darker sound of the later Sassoon lives up to the reputation of the aging maker’s changing tonal preferences. The Guarneris sound as commanding as they do during the regular repertoire, with the King Joseph marginally silkier. Among the violas, the Guarneri sounds most solid and cleanly chiseled, but the Guadagnini combines, perhaps most exceptionally, bloom and clarity.

The DVD contains the whole program, with interspersed commentary, photography of the instruments, and interviews. The camera swirls around each instrument as it’s played and reveals the placement of the sound equipment—overhead and forward. Ehnes’s remarks about the instruments provides a counterpoint to the listener’s impressions, especially if the listener, as I did, goes first to the CD and forms opinions, even inchoate ones like those above, from the auditory impressions alone. So Ehnes’s calling the Duke of Alba Stradivari “chocolaty” on the bottom, pointing out the Knoop Stradivari’s “bass resonance,” and calling the Baron d’Assignies Stradivari “fresh” can provide real insight. When all’s said and done, however, it’s hard not to entertain the question, even if at the back of your mind, whether all the millions spent to purchase these instruments might not better serve humanity, even the music-loving portion, invested in education of modern-day luthiers. Why be content with an ever-diminishing group of aging instruments? Why not 10,000 instruments of this quality rather than several hundred? (Or would collectors feel that their currency might be debased?) Why consider Stradivari a pinnacle rather than a foothill on the way to ever more stratospheric achievements? Consider the development of mathematics, physics, and chemistry since Stradivari’s time. We’ve put a man on the moon, and though we may still be unable to cure the common cold, we’ve developed Blu-ray. We know a lot about sound. Isn’t it time to use everything we know to produce great violins in our own time?

But enough of editorializing. With its generally excellent performances (notably including those by Eduard Laurel), this collection should appeal strongly to general listeners, especially if they have any curiosity at all about why violinists and collectors pay millions for their instruments. The DVD should only enhance the value of the collection for them. But for aficionados, Onyx’s project, with its clear and detailed recorded sound, should weave a web of irresistible fascination. Urgently recommended overall.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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Works on This Recording

La ronde des lutins, Op. 25 by Antonio Bazzini
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: Romantic 
Written: by 1847; Italy 
Canciones populares españolas (7) by Manuel de Falla
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914-1915; Spain 
Notes: Arranger: Kochanski. 
La capricieuse, Op. 17 by Sir Edward Elgar
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1891; England 
Pieces (2) for Piano, Op. 47: no 1, Lotus land by Cyril Scott
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1905; England 
Notes: Arranger: Kreisler. 
Hora staccato by Grigoras Dinicu
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1906; Romania 
Notes: Arranger: Heifetz. 
Pièce en forme de Habañera by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1907; France 
Etudes-Caprices (8) for 2 Violins, Op. 18: Excerpt(s) by Henri Wieniawski
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Notes: Arranger: Kreisler. 
Pieces (5) for Violin and Piano, Op. 81: no 1, Mazurka by Jean Sibelius
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: Romantic 
Written: circa 1915; Finland 
Pieces (2) for Piano, Op. 45: no 2, Guitarre by Moritz Moszkowski
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: Romantic 
Written: Germany 
Notes: Arranger: Sarasate. 
Salut d'amour, Op. 12 by Sir Edward Elgar
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888/1889; England 
Chanson Louis XIII and Pavane in the style of Dittersdorf by Fritz Kreisler
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Souvenir d'un lieu cher, Op. 42: no 3, Mélodie by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1878; Russia 
La vida breve: Spanish Dance no 1 by Manuel de Falla
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1904-1905; Spain 
Notes: Arranger: Kreisler. 
Fantasia on Greensleeves by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Performer:  James Ehnes (Viola), Eduard Laurel (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; England 
Jamaican Rumba by Arthur Benjamin
Performer:  James Ehnes (Viola), Eduard Laurel (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1938; England 
Notes: Arranger: Primrose. 
Le désert: La Nuit by Félicien César David
Performer:  James Ehnes (Viola), Eduard Laurel (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1844; Paris, France 
Notes: Arranger: Vieuxtemps. 
Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46: Excerpt(s) by Max Bruch
Performer:  Eduard Laurel (Piano), James Ehnes (Violin)
Period: Romantic 
Harold en Italie, Op. 16: Excerpt(s) by Hector Berlioz
Performer:  James Ehnes (Viola), Eduard Laurel (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: France 

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