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Korngold, Barber, Walton: Violin Concertos / James Ehnes, Vancouver Symphony

Release Date: 11/20/2007 
Label:  Onyx   Catalog #: 4016  
Composer:  Erich Wolfgang KorngoldSamuel BarberSir William Walton
Performer:  James Ehnes
Conductor:  Bramwell Tovey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vancouver Symphony

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Each generation brings forth a set of musicians that become household names during their lives and legends after their passing. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Heifetz, Horowitz, Piatigorsky, Rubinstein and the like ruled. By the 1950s it was Van Cliburn, Philippe Entremont and Michael Rabin taking the lead. In the 1970s a tremendous wave of talent in the form of Pinchas Zuckerman, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman and Jacqueline DuPre had taken the world by storm. Another turn of the clock has occurred and names like Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, and Evgeny Kissin are everyday concert happenings. Clearly at the head of this class is the brilliant Canadian violinist James Ehnes. A boyish thirty years old, Ehnes is as
Read more down to earth as your favorite sweat shirt. Until that is, he picks up his violin. This collection of three great violin concertos from the troubled era of the Second World War, show James Ehnes at his finest.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was proclaimed by Mahler to be a genius when he was but ten years old. By the time he had reached twenty, the greatest musicians in the world were playing his music, and his opera Die Tote Stadt was the most performed opera of the 1920s. By 1934 it was too dangerous to be a Jew in a German-speaking country, and he left for the United States where he landed a lucrative contract in Hollywood composing music for films. The violin concerto, first performed by Jascha Heifetz is an amalgam of themes from his film scores. It is full of lyrical, sentimental tunes with lush romantic orchestration.

Ehnes’ playing is just the right combination of seriousness and Hollywood . The romanticism is not lost on him, but he never gets saccharine. His tone is rich and warm and in the big sweeping melodies, he sings like a good tenor. Nor does he fall short of the virtuosity needed for the rollicking final movement.  

Samuel Barber’s concerto was until the era of the compact disc more or less neglected. Commissioned by a wealthy business man for his adopted son, the work had a troubled start. The commissioner thought it not difficult enough, hence the addition of the fiendish third movement, which said commissioner, thought unplayable. The concerto finally made its way into the repertoire a decade or so ago, and is one of the most played violin concertos on the circuit now.

Mr. Ehnes has some major competition in Gil Shaham’s exemplary recording with Previn from a decade or so ago, which also contains a fine rendition of the Korngold.  There are also excellent recordings by Elmar Oliveira, Hilary Hahn and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Ehnes need not worry about losing out to his colleagues though.  

As with the Korngold, Ehnes plays with passion and conviction. The achingly beautiful melody of the second movement is so well performed that as a listener, you can forget to breathe for a few minutes. And the finger-busting finale comes across with the ease of a warm-up etude. Ehnes is in full command of the score.  

The most welcome surprise on the program was the Walton concerto, rarely heard and for no good reason. Not as tuneful as the other two works, this is a concerto made of the tight harmonies and unique chord choices that make Walton’s music so refreshing. This concerto added fuel to my increasing enthusiasm for this composer’s work, and with a performance so full of panache as this one, the addition is welcome indeed.  

Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Orchestra seem to be the perfect partners for Ehnes’ taut sense of inner rhythm and his rhapsodic way with a good melody. The orchestra produces a rich string sound and spot-on wind and brass playing. Tempi fit the music like a glove and the underlying energy that the orchestra provides for the soloist is just perfect.  

Rounded out by excellent notes and a warm, vibrant recorded sound and you have a complete winner here. James Ehnes is that rare musician blessed with ample technique, and something serious and winsome to say about the music he plays. That he is becoming an international star is no surprise with playing like this. Yet for all his virtuoso abilities, he is a player of refined tastes and musical modesty. His playing serves the music, and one never gets any other impression but that he loves every minute of what he’s doing. Don’t hesitate to jump online and order a copy of this one!

-- Kevin Sutton, MusicWeb International  
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Violin in D major, Op. 35 by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Performer:  James Ehnes (Violin)
Conductor:  Bramwell Tovey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vancouver Symphony
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945; USA 
Length: 25 Minutes 0 Secs. 
Concerto for Violin, Op. 14 by Samuel Barber
Performer:  James Ehnes (Violin)
Conductor:  Bramwell Tovey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vancouver Symphony
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; USA 
Length: 23 Minutes 30 Secs. 
Concerto for Violin in B minor by Sir William Walton
Performer:  James Ehnes (Violin)
Conductor:  Bramwell Tovey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vancouver Symphony
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1938-1939; England 
Length: 29 Minutes 59 Secs. 

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