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Britten & Shostakovich: Violin Concertos / Ehnes

Britten / Shostakovich / Karabits
Release Date: 06/11/2013 
Label:  Onyx   Catalog #: 4113   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin BrittenDmitri Shostakovich
Performer:  James Ehnes
Conductor:  Kirill Karabits
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN Violin Concerto. SHOSTAKOVICH Violin Concerto No. 1 James Ehnes (vn); Kirill Karabits, cond; Bournemouth SO ONYX 4113 (66:56)

Malcolm MacDonald’s notes draw connections between Britten’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s First Concerto, although, for example, the three-movement form including a scherzo-like middle one had already appeared in Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto and Walton’s Violin Concerto, and Britten himself created a similar overall Read more structure (with a passacaglia as its final movement, to boot) in his String Quartet No. 2 in C Major from 1945. Still, both works seem on the bitter side of the pH scale and give the impression, as MacDonald points out, of each making a serious statement. After its premiere recording, by the composer and violinist Mark Lubotsky, the Concerto reappeared about a decade ago with Maxim Vengerov (EMI 7243 5 57510 2 7, Fanfare 28:4), Daniel Hope (Warner 2564-60291-2, Fanfare 28:5), and Janine Jansen (Decca 0013281, Fanfare 33:4) as soloists. James Ehnes plays its opening passages with almost aching melancholy, but he’s incisive in the second movement, keenly stropped (like Karabits and the orchestra) in meeting its technical demands and razor-sharp in its double-stops. At times, the movement’s melodic quicksilver (in addition to specific melodic turns) recalls a similar mercurial brilliance in Prokofiev’s above-mentioned Concerto, but it doesn’t offer the violinist so many opportunities for simple gymnastic flips—the musical message seems mixed rather than simple, and Ehnes honors that complexity. MacDonald doubts that Shostakovich knew Britten’s work, so it’s all the more uncanny how closely the cadenza of Britten’s resembles that of Shostakovich’s—similar at least in handling and developing the work’s thematic materials rather than in simply running through passages of scales and arpeggios. The first variation of the passacaglia may recall for some listeners another work that Britten may not have had in mind—the central variations movement of Bartók’s Violin Concerto of 1938; after that first variation, however, the resemblances end. Ehnes rises with noble exaltation as a voice above the tempest, while Karabits extracts some almost terrifying sonorities from the orchestra to support it—or to serve as its foil. Near the end, rocking harmonies in the orchestra’s reading recall similar repeated, quasi-hypnotic lapping in the composer’s Passacaglia from Peter Grimes.

Maxim Vengerov paired the Concerto with Walton’s Viola Concerto on EMI 7243 5 57510 2 7 ( Fanfare 28:4); Daniel Hope, with Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto on Warner 2564-60291 ( Fanfare 28:5); and, about a half-decade later, Janine Jansen, with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on Decca B0013281 ( Fanfare 33:4). Like Jansen, who played the first movement in 9:31, Ehnes, at 9:57, has trimmed slightly the times from Vengerov’s reading (10:15) and Hope’s (10: 44)—”slightly” because Mark Lubotsky’s timing for the first movement with the composer conducting in 1970 amounted to 7:17 (I’ve referred to Lubotsky’s reading as possessing “tart authority”). But one timing doesn’t make a performance, and Ehnes sounds more bewitching in the opening measures than does either Jansen, Hope (who doesn’t seem to allow the arching lines to blossom with nuances despite the extra minute), Vengerov, or Lubotsky. He seem more ruminative in the cadenza than the comparatively aggressive Jansen, Hope, or the bravura Vengerov who, however, explores of the passage’s shadows even more thoroughly as well as setting off its fireworks. Jansen, in a booklet interview, ranks the work among the great ones, and all four violinists (Vengerov, Hope, Jansen, and Ehnes) play it that way, although Lubotsky, in less technologically advanced recorded sound, still has the advantage of Britten’s participation. His performance can be acquired in a set that includes some other stunning readings by the composer of his own works, including the Piano Concerto (with Sviatoslav Richter), the “Simple” Symphony, the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra , the Serenade (with Peter Pears and Barry Tuckwell), the Sinfonia da Requiem , and the Bridge Variations on seven CDs, Decca 475 6051. Although you could argue forever about the change in Pears’s voice and Dennis Brain instead of Barry Tuckwell in the Serenade, this box remains, for me, and perhaps for me only, the version of this music, including the Violin Concerto, for the desert isle.

For many years, David Oistrakh pretty much dominated the field with imported and domestic recordings of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto—although Leonid Kogan made an almost equally atmospheric recording of it early on. Then, reviews would triumphantly proclaim that this recording or that (by Itzhak Perlman, Viktoria Mullova, or Maxim Vengerov, for example) had not only equaled Oistrakh’s achievement in the work but exceeded it. At moments, Ehnes seems also to challenge Oistrakh’s hegemony; but while those who revere Oistrakh’s performance—either the live premiere or the studio recording the next day—will find in the first movement a similar gray mystery. They may miss Oistrakh’s way of maintaining the motion during the movement’s terrifying denouement, his mordant bite in the Scherzo’s main section, his near-frenzy in that movement’s middle, and his sense of resignation as the gnomic main melody returns. (Still, the wide dynamic range of Onyx’s recorded sound gives the end of the movement a propulsive thrust not possible in recordings of a generation ago.) Ehnes enters in the third-movement passacaglia with the same kind of chameleon-like flexibility of timbre that Oistrakh could command in pieces like this one (Ehnes deploys this to striking effect, too, in the opening movement of Britten’s Concerto). Ehnes doesn’t maintain the sense of almost mystical ecstasy so high and so long as Oistrakh did in the movement, nor does he wind it down with so pregnant a sense of expectation. The cadenza is longer than the finale, which sometimes can seem anticlimactic after the extended build-up. I heard an early broadcast of a performance by Yehudi Menuhin that went through the whole cadenza in grayscale—even more achromatic than Oistrakh’s performance. Few have achieved this effect since then, and neither does Ehnes—if that’s what you’re looking for. Still, Ehnes plays with a violinistic command—if not quite a musical one—that just about matches Oistrakh’s.

If Oistrakh still reigns supreme (arguably) in Shostakovich’s Concerto, he shouldn’t do so for long, because times do change, and the work needs a living advocate (Dylana Jensen, on Mano a Mano, comes very close to being just that advocate, Fanfare 34:1). In the meantime, Ehnes will do just about as well as anybody and better than almost everybody else, while his recording of Britten’s Concerto should be acquired by anyone who appreciates the work’s merits. Strongly recommended, therefore, to all but specialist collectors in this repertoire.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham


On paper the Britten and Shostakovich violin concertos make for an apt pair. The two composers were longtime friends who were very familiar with each other’s music. However, apart from both concertos featuring an extended passacaglia movement, the two works are quite different. Britten’s first-movement theme evokes a guarded optimism, while Shostakovich’s is unrelentingly gloomy.

James Ehnes convincingly conveys both of these states in his highly accomplished readings. No matter how wide the leap or rapid-fire the passage, Ehnes’ tone is solid, his intonation dead-on, creating a feeling of confident mastery that impresses in the Shostakovich (especially in the cadenza and finale). However, this can pay dimishing returns as Ehnes’ rendition lacks the grit and sense of challenge present in Lydia Mordkovitch’s gripping performance with Neeme Järvi (who also provides a darker and more acerbic reading of the orchestra accompaniment than does Kirill Karabits).

Ehnes’ beautiful tone and geniune feeling (his first movement is simply gorgeous) combined with Karabits’ stirring orchestral accompaniment (he really nails the passcaglia Finale) helps his Britten withstand challenges from the competition, although the composer’s own recording with Mark Lubotsky remains formidable, and still sounds suprisingly fresh today. The present recording benefits from Onyx’s realistic sound, which places the violinist in natural perspective with the orchestra. If you want these two pieces (and they actually work quite well together) Ehnes’ new recording will greatly satisfy.

-- Victor Carr Jr, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Violin in D minor, Op. 15 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  James Ehnes (Violin)
Conductor:  Kirill Karabits
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939/1958; England 
Concerto for Violin no 1 in A minor, Op. 77 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Performer:  James Ehnes (Violin)
Conductor:  Kirill Karabits
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USSR 

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