James Ehnes and the Classical Blues Brothers: a CD review by Stanley Fefferman

James Ehnes. Britten and Shostakovich. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Kiril Karabits. ONYX. Distributed by Harmonia Mundi.

From the moment they met in London, 1960, Britten and Shostakovich felt close as brothers. Musically, they occupied the same zone—where the borders of atonality and Post-Romantic melody meet. Politically they were both conflicted men: deeply nationalistic and antiestablishment. Emotionally, they inclined towards lamentation. For all these reasons, it is not far-fetched to dub them the Classical Blues Brothers.

Ehnes makes the tender opening cantilena of  Britten’s Violin Concerto op. 15 appealing as an injured kitten. Britten’s motif is dramatized and developed in the violin part through a wide range of textures that display Ehnes’ huge technique. Not short on feeling either, he plays the melody for its pathos, ornamenting with nervous pizzicati the sensuously bowed lines that rise to skylark heights, pure and singing, with a measured vibrato.

The second movement is a scherzo marked vivace—lively, but with a dash of bitters. Less pathos here, more wheedling that spirals into a cadenza—a tentative, oriental patchwork of strokes, plucks, zigs and zags, broken bursts, scrapes and some melodic scales. Altogether virtuosic and satisfying.

In the final passacaglia, Ehnes revives the motif of the injured kitten, now up and moving through the faltering steps of a dance that twitters and sinks into lamentation before it expires. Not surprisingly Britten’s 1938 composition references the tragic progress and outcome of the Spanish Civil war.

The Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor op. 77 was written while the composer was muffled by the cloud of Stalin’s post-war purge.  Of necessity, the score puts Ehnes through a landscape of emotional states, heavy and harsh. The opening is a slow descent into the violin’s low register. When it goes high, it goes spooky, and in sections ornamented with celesta, it adopts the mood of leaving this world. Ehnes’ amazing legato line is weighted down by trombones into a subterrranean moan. As if crouching there to spring up in madcap motions familiar familiar from the String Quartets, the violin leaps and leads the huge orchestral scherzo in a sardonic chase, defiant as a carnival thumbing its nose at the the forces of authority.

Those same forces open the passacaglia with timpani and blare of brass, war-like and tragic, a fateful fanfare that ramps to a dirge. The solo violin enters, mournful, lamenting, reaching out in sympathy—the epitome of greiving. The dirge combines personal and public utterances into a feeling of mourning the death of an entire people, before the movement concludes personally and dark.

The entire fourth movement is a cadenza that binds the opening theme and other familiar materials in a virtuosic dialogue, obssessive but beautifully varied by Ehnes in tone and dynamics at terrfic speed into protean shapes. The cadenza flips into a finale that is a burlesque dance, a cockayne celebration of great hilarity and turbulence. Here, as at all points in the recording, the voice of the violin is perfectly centred in the sweet spot. Triumphant conclusion to a winning album.


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