BBC Proms: Walton Violin Concerto with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Thomas Søndergård

Aug. 13, 2014 | Reviews


“Next the BBC National Orchestra of Wales turned its attention to Walton's Violin Concerto, played by the always-astonishing James Ehnes. This was a glorious performance that revelled in the Concerto's lyricism without becoming cloying. But the encore was simply spell-binding: Ehnes played the third movement from Bach's Second Sonata for solo violin as the whole Royal Albert Hall leaned in to listen.” (BBC Music Magazine, 13 August 2014)

“One of my favourite things about the Proms is the silence the season’s best performances can produce. Thousands of people cram into the Royal Albert Hall every night, and they shuffle, cough and whisper like any other kind of audience. But every so often, it all dies away, and thousands of people lean in together to listen, so quiet that you can hear the patter of the rain on the roof far above your head. Such a moment occurred during Prom 35, as violinist James Ehnes returned to the stage after his superb rendition of Walton’s Violin Concerto to give an unscheduled encore. To a rapt crowd, he played the third movement of Bach’s second sonata for solo violin, carefully drawing out the spread chords to support the sonorous melody. The quieter he played, the harder the audience listened, and the more intense the silence surrounding his music became.” (NewStatesman, 13 August 2014)

"the ultimate honours went to William Walton’s Violin Concerto and soloist James Ehnes. No matter how furious or tender the music, this Canadian phenomenon has a welcome lack of many a soloist’s “look at me” attitude. Ehnes draws you into his playing, inviting you to discover with the same wonder both the unknown and the familiar. He was apparently born scraping horse hair across catgut, for Ehnes the process is as natural as mother’s milk. What was so memorable was the common bond between Ehnes’s natural ease of playing and the Albert Hall’s unique Proms atmosphere, historical excellence and modern simplicity. This is a pretty light weight piece, but I knew for certain this was precisely how Walton wanted it played. A performance by Ehnes I am truly grateful I saw." (Express, 17 August 2014)

“Next came the Walton Violin Concerto. It took a while for me to tune my ears and head into Canadian James Ehnes’ slender, silvery line…Once attuned to this light supple effect, the incisive playing and rhythmic intimacy registered with utmost pleasure. The central presto was more than usually fey, fly-away, cheeky and Mendelssohnian. In the finale the equipoise between luxuriously emphatic romance and rhythmic focus was again razor-sharp. The applause was extended and Ehnes eventually ‘capitulated’ with a soothing èlite encore: the third movement of J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 2,. (Seen and Heard, 13 August 2014)

“Walton’s Violin Concerto, which some consider the finest of all his orchestral works, was once so closely identified with the brilliant Jascha Heifetz that it took a while for more relaxed options to gain traction. Interpretatively speaking, James Ehnes steered a middle course between the tensile Heifetz approach and the less insistent style of a Kyung-Wha Chung, offering Mediterranean warmth with an astringent edge. In certain respects he was closer to the former, the determined immobility of his playing stance and the impregnability of his intonation and technique being redolent of a bygone age. His Stradivarius produced glorious, sweetly focused tone.” (Classical Source, 13 August 2014)




 


Highlights from the 2014 Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival

Jul. 14, 2014 | Reviews


“The finale, Schubert’s huge Octet in F Major, brought together five virtuoso string players (Ehnes, Amy Schwartz Moretti, Richard O’Neill, Efe Baltacigil and Jordan Anderson) with clarinetist Anthony McGill, bassoonist Stéphane Lévesque and Jeffrey Fair, horn. The performance had everything: refinement, gracefulness, boisterous energy and crisply incisive leadership from Ehnes.” (Seattle Times, 9 July 2014)

“As a special treat, Ehnes performed Beethoven's C minor Quartet from the Op.18 set with his own quartet in a free recital before the concert proper; they then returned for the work filling the evening's second half, the very substantial “Razumovsky” String Quartet in F major, Op.59, no. 1. Here was a somewhat different, though equally enthralling, approach to the chamber ensemble ideal: instead of three very distinctive personalities merging together, a quartet of more like-minded musicians in which Ehnes often seems the “first among equals”, setting the tone and guiding the overall spirit. The language he and violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O'Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine speak together – one marked by lyrical clarity and a real sensitivity to dynamic contrasts – feels so assured that impulsive, spur-of-the-minute choices can be readily accommodated. There's a clear sense of risk-taking, of going beyond whatever happened in the last rehearsal, such that their performances are imbued with a remarkable vitality. Some moments of imprecise ensemble may result, but the tanginess of expression is more than worth it.” (Bachtrack, 10 July 2014)

“…a very fine reading of the first of Beethoven’s Op. 59 string quartets. Violinist and festival artistic director James Ehnes gave a beautifully shaped, patrician lead to the quartet, which included violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine: not a weak link anywhere. The level of ensemble playing was remarkably high, and the playing sounded fresh, unforced, and natural.” (Seattle Times, 10 July 2014)

“The program included 19 of Bartok’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, and from the first moment James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti proved again how compatible they are as musicians, their sound and style a perfect match. Bartok composed these miniature pieces in 1931, and though they grow progressively more difficult from number one to number 44, he intended performers to mix up the order as was done here. Some are in the style of national dances or songs, but the wide variety of styles include everything from bagpipe sounds to a mosquito dance to a soulful lullaby. Ehnes and Schwartz Moretti brought vigor, panache and obvious enjoyment to the works with rich tone and singing moments.” (City Arts, 14 July 2014)

“The four musicians [of the Ehnes Quartet]…have been in considerable demand outside the festival. It shows in their playing. The matching instrument sound and tonal colors, particularly the blending of Ehnes and Moretti—if you are not looking you can’t tell who is playing what—; the fine sense of dynamics—this is a group not afraid to play very softly as well as a rousing forte to create exciting or memorable effect; the togetherness and precision, though there were a couple of moments in both quartets when an attack was not quite perfect; all this gives us a chance to hear an emerging group which may come to equal the best the world has to offer.” (SunBreak, 10 July 2014)




 


Elgar's Violin Concerto with the Vancouver Symphony and Bramwell Tovey

Jun. 18, 2014 | Reviews


“Elgar's Violin Concerto…was the true heart of the evening… Ehnes gave a powerhouse performance. His playing was technically flawless throughout, including the intricate third movement which was performed faster and cleaner than I’ve ever heard it before. More importantly, Ehnes has the full spectrum of colour and dynamics needed to turn the concerto into a true artistic experience. Tovey and the orchestra played with true symphonic energy and richness, but allowed their soloist to be heard throughout. Ehnes returned to give a breathtaking beautiful encore of the Andante from Bach’s second solo violin sonata, and later joined the orchestra at the back of the first violins for the Berlioz and Respighi – no wonder he is such an adored artist in Vancouver! A true tour-de-force from a beloved Canadian artist, an orchestra on sparkling form, and an imaginative, vibrant programme – what better way to close a season?” (Bachtrack, 15 June 2014)

“It’s long and very difficult, yet downplays conventional concerto rhetoric. Emotion trumps dialectics throughout; the work’s most memorable passages include a tender Andante and an exquisite (dare one say enigmatic?) finale. This is not a piece for every soloist or every conductor, but it works magnificently for Ehnes, whose sound and temperament were completely in sync with the piece.” (Vancouver Sun, 15 June 2014)

“One certainly had to be taken by the sheer beauty of the violinist’s playing right from his opening entry — the beautiful long clean lines, the wonderful warm silkiness in the tone, the seamless phrasing. And the staggering technical address, so easily up to the work’s most formidable technical challenges…Ehnes’ technical wizardry in the final movement is well known, and he did not disappoint. It would be almost impossible to visualize any living violinist who could articulate this movement with more clarity and assurance.” (Seen and Heard International, 18 June 2014)




 


Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the New Jersey Symphony and Jacques Lacombe

Jun. 3, 2014 | Reviews


"James Ehnes proved a technical marvel as the soloist for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, a much-loved work that carries Mozartian grace but also an intrepid quality. The work’s long, winding, legato lines can have the eloquent charm of a speaker whose words can wrap a listener around his finger. Ehnes — who has a cool, patrician presence — produced a glossy tone as he carefully unfurled them without the slightest ripple disturbing their smoothness. He played with exacting intonation and articulation and flawlessly executed the numerous trills...his sheer virtuosity became mesmerizing." (Star-Ledger, 3 June 2014)

"Tall, slender, James Ehnes cut an elegant figure in black tails and white tie in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The wealth of trills in the first movement...he dispatched with complete elegance. The energetic Rondo: Allegro came off brilliantly, giving the lie to the misperception that this concerto is introspective, not flashy. The violinist played the cadenzas by Fritz Kreisler.The ensuing standing ovation elicited an encore from the soloist, namely, the third movement from Bach’s “Sonata No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin.” The audience listened in rapt silence." (Examiner, 31 May 2014)




 


James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong in Recital, featuring the world premiere of Alexina Louie’s “Beyond Time”

Apr. 6, 2014 | Reviews


“From the first note, I knew we were in for a rare treat and this was the case for the entire evening. Individually, they are consummate artists with a prodigious technique; as a team they are unparalleled. The excitement their playing generates is beyond belief… they were impeccable in their teamwork, seeming to breathe together. [In the Leclair] Ehnes gave us clean bowing as well as some spectacular spiccato playing. Both performers had superb dynamic control and sensitive phrasing, from the merest whisper to forte passages. The Brahms Sonata which followed calls for a huge opening, which they gave us; magnificent, bravura piano and soaring, sobbing violin. The second movement had wonderfully lush sounds and gorgeous tone from Ehnes and Armstrong both. The final two movements showed their dazzling technique to the full… I found [“Louie’s “Beyond Time”] completely mesmerizing, not only as a composition, but also from the exciting, energetic performance. The final Sonata, by Richard Strauss, was for me the ultimate performance of the evening. The writing is full of strong rhythms, huge sound from both instruments almost like a wall of sound, melodious, rippling passages and others full of grandeur, challenging the techniques of the musicians, which they met and surpassed.” (Kelowna Daily Courier, 1 April 2014)

“[The Leclair Sonata is] dangerous music to play, for the soloist is so exposed if the technique falters. The trick is to make it sound easy, and that is what Ehnes did, releasing its vibrancy. Once could almost see the dance steps in the music. Ehnes’ approach to Brahms’ Violin Sonata in D minor (the last of his three, completed in 1888) was to treat it unashamedly as a high point of Romantic passion. …the marvellously rich tone, the concentration on maximum expressiveness, the notable dynamic variations in phrases and often in individual notes — suited this approach.” (Edmonton Journal, 3 April 2014)




 


Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and André de Ridder

Mar. 14, 2014 | News


"It may be possible to play the Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 better than Ehnes did on Thursday evening, but frankly, I don’t think so. On every level — brilliance of technique, depth of interpretation, ensemble accuracy, and an obvious bone-deep love for the music — Ehnes lifted the concerto to dizzying heights, along with partnership from guest maestro André de Ridder. This is music Ehnes has long performed, and also recorded, and it is in his heart as well as his fingers...The supercharged Bartók...not surprisingly, got a huge audience reaction."

(Seattle Times, 14 March 2014)




 


The Ehnes Quartet at Wigmore Hall in London

Feb. 28, 2014 | Reviews


“Beethoven’s E-flat major Quartet op.74, the ‘Harp’, came first, the sound well-upholstered, rich and full-toned but still clear in balance, texture and articulation. In Joseph Suk’s Meditation on an Old Bohemian Chrorale there was tough, vehement playing within the predominant lyricism. Bartók’s Third Quartet was performed with captivating purpose: beautiful, ferocious, delicate, propelled by dynamic energy and with the spirit of dance bubbling underneath. This long, complex paragraph was played with unfailing eloquence and, need it be said, technical brilliance.” (The Strad, May 2014)

“The inclusion of a relative rarity from Josef Suk was welcome… The Ehnes musicians gave a thoughtful account, revealing Suk’s pain and anguish at the onset of the First World War. The muted theme was led by Richard O’Neill’s mellow but rather mournful viola, while an extended period of clouded reflection towards the end gave way to sunlight. There followed a technically impressive performance of Bartók’s one-movement Third String Quartet, superbly brought off, the all-important rhythms and syncopations executed with precision, with fluctuations of pace natural and logical, the dance rhythms swayed persuasively, and the tunes placed above preserving rusticity. The insect-like figurations of the night-time music were fascinating, and the furtive scrapes of bows near bridges were carefully effective. The swirling figurations as the piece approached its end had complete unity.” (Classical Source, February 2014)




 


Last Minute Solo Bach at Wigmore Hall

Jan. 12, 2014 | Reviews


“With Ehnes’s duo partner suddenly taken ill, that Strad came centre-stage for Ehnes’s substitute solo programme: two of Bach’s greatest violin works, Partitas 2 and 3. And one saw immediately what he was talking about: the sound was rich, bright, and muscular as he launched into the tumbling figurations of the opening Prelude. His playing was exemplarily clean, with beautifully-handled echo effects.” (Independent, 7 January 2014)

“The Wigmore Hall acoustic is ideal for such works. Ehnes projected a beautiful sound to the back of the venue with ease. He was aided by very careful attention to dynamic detail, emphasising the lovely echo effects in the ‘call and response’ passages of the ‘Prelude’ of the E major Partita. With complete accuracy, not least regards tuning, he was able to focus intently on his spacious interpretations. Ehnes’s Bach is unfussy, often rhythmically straight and ‘as written’ but always keen to bring out the music’s dance elements. The ‘Gavotte en Rondeau’ of BWV1006 skipped most attractively, with a rustic feel, while there was an incisive snap to the rhythms of the D minor Partita’s ‘Corrente’ and a poise to the ‘Giga’, notable also for exceptional clarity. Playing from memory, Ehnes demonstrated his affinity for Bach’s music, his instinctive playing guiding the works fluently through even the trickiest of arpeggio sequences. The D minor Partita, the more solemn of the two played here, was a cloud to the sunlight of its E major counterpart. Ehnes invested the ‘Prelude’ with a touching seriousness before exploring the dissonance of the ‘Sarabande’, ever more inward and personal, and subsiding to a mere whisper. Multiple-stopped passages were lucid, although, but for a couple of exceptions, repeats were eschewed, but this did not harm the structural flow of the music. And so, inevitably, we arrived at the great ‘Chaconne’ with which BWV1004 closes. Ehnes played it with great virtuosity, but always musically rather than for display. Forthright and powerful, it grew as a large tapestry, each idea woven to the previous one with impressive surety.” (Classical Source, 7 January 2014)

“[In] the great Chaconne, the concluding movement which, in addition to lasting the length of the previous four put together, is one of the most miraculous of all masterpieces. Ehnes, on a perfectly fitting 1715 Stradivarius and using a restrained amount of vibrato, played with purity and an unfailing sense of line. The extended string crossing had a silken simplicity. OK, OK, it's early January and I'm already heading for superlative and cliche, but if I hear nothing better in 2014 I still will have done well.” (Observer, 12 January 2014)




 


Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles

Dec. 13, 2013 | Reviews


James Ehnes displayed colour and control in a staggeringly powerful performance of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto: "At the heart of this concert by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was a staggeringly powerful performance of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto, with playing so eloquent and direct from Canadian violinist James Ehnes that it almost eclipsed the rest of the programme. ...it was Ehnes's soulful, impeccable, engulfing Shostakovich that made this concert unforgettable. His control and range of colour were masterful: the sound was woody and dark, at turns urgent, mournful and vulnerable; and the long, troubled phrases that underpin the Concerto unfurled as if without a beginning or an end. The cadenza was devastatingly frank and seemed to consume him. The orchestra responded with icy quiet passages, heartbreaking tenderness in the passacaglia and flashes of hot brutality. The performance prompted a rare standing ovation, and rightly so." (Guardian, 13 December 2013)

"It was the Shostakovich Concerto – or, more specifically, Canadian violinist James Ehnes’s astonishingly intense performance – that proved the evening’s revelation. It’s one of the Soviet composer’s “for the drawer” works – written as Shostakovich was coming under attack for anti-state formalism by Stalin's Politburo henchmen, hence hidden and only revealed once artistic conditions had thawed a little. And with its unremittingly bleak, grotesque music, it’s hardly the most immediately approachable concerto – which made Ehnes’s unforgettable performance all the more remarkable. He plotted the course of the first-movement Nocturne’s endless melody with expert precision, and seemed to deliver the bitterly ironic second-movement Scherzo – full of violin pyrotechnics, which he negotiated with calm brilliance – through gritted teeth. He was unshowy yet technically flawless, and he offered the music with touching sincerity and a deep seriousness. There are few violinists around who can make that concerto speak so directly – no wonder the audience was on its feet at the end." (Daily Telegraph, 13 December 2013)

"Standing ovations simply don’t happen very often on a Thursday night at the BBC SSO, which is nothing to do with the quality of performances, just the nature of this particular Glasgow audience. So when they do jump to their feet it has to have been for something extra special, which itself is almost too feeble a way to describe the performance last night by Canadian soloist James Ehnes of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1, under the baton of Donald Runnicles. It was the centrepiece of a substantial programme – surrounded either side by Beethoven’s Symphony No 4 and John Adams’ City Noir – but in its own right was an entirely consuming experience in every possible sense. From the aching rumination of the opening nocturne to the dizzy exuberance of the finale, Ehnes’ vast and effortless mahogany tone cut a swathe that breathed soul and character into every moment. There was devilish excitement in the scherzo, suppressed ecstasy in the slow inexorability of the passacaglia, and jaw-dropping virtuosity in the absorbing cadenza." (Scotsman, 13 December 2013)




 


Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Stéphane Denève

Dec. 7, 2013 | Reviews


“James Ehnes turned in an impassioned solo turn, capturing the concerto’s unruly intensity and smartly negotiating its ever-contrasting moods. He dug into the grit of this work, drawing an appropriately empty, washed-out tone from his instrument that ideally suited parts of the first movement “Nocturne” — an unsettled night with a dank pall hanging overhead. Denève and Ehnes captured the manic spirit of the Scherzo, which felt constantly like it was about to spin out of control, with disorienting syncopations and jarring intrusions, such as a snatch of surreal calliope-like music. The third movement “Passacaglia” gave way to an extended cadenza, which Ehnes made his own, starting quietly and then letting all the pent-up tension spew forward in a tumult of agitated introspection. The work culminated with a bizarrely macabre Burlesque that reached a suitably fevered pitch.” (Chicago Sun-Times, 6 December 2013)

“An impeccably played account of the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto by the remarkable James Ehnes. The Manitoba-born, Florida-based Ehnes is an artist I've long admired and it was easy to understand why the audience, orchestra and Deneve himself applauded his Shostakovich so heartily: You won't hear this music played more skillfully than here. The soloist drew you into this 1948 masterwork with the silken tone and poised elegance he brought to the opening Nocturne, and he had the crowd jumping to its feet following the giddy Burlesque finale, which he took at a death-defying clip without missing a note.” (Chicago Tribune, 6 December 2013)

“James Ehnes’ virtuosic, impassioned take on Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1…Ehnes made exquisite work of those introspective chapters and hair-raising flights (at very high speed) of the quick sections. This is a violinist with all the technical tools and an unerring sensibility. Ehnes’ brought lustrous, singing tone to the melancholy Nocturne that opens the concerto and something bordering on tragedy to the grand Passacaglia that sets up the finale. There was real humor – and real panache – in his sprint through the Scherzo, and something much darker in the closing Burlesque, which he took at a lightning pace. And all the way, in this marvelously orchestrated and integrated concerto, Denève stayed adroitly in touch with the soloist, eliciting from the CSO a collaboration worthy of a chamber ensemble: mere filaments of sound one moment, the next moment flames.” (Chiacgo on the Aisle, 7 December 2013)




 


In Residence with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Nov. 18, 2013 | Reviews


James has been the artist-in-residence with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for three weeks, during which he appeared as both soloist and conductor for three Vivaldi/Mozart concerts, performed Khachaturian's Violin Concerto with Mark Wigglesworth, and offered a recital, for which he programmed Bartok's Sonata for Solo Violin and Schubert Octet with members of the orchestra. Below are some excerpts of reviews:

Recital: "A lone figure on a completely empty stage, Ehnes required nothing but his performance with which to captivate the audience. He showed unquestioned technical mastery from the opening chords of the Tempo di ciaccona with the most challenging doublestops, contrapuntal voicings, harmonics and sure-fingered passagework all projected with firm authority. The fervour with which he tackled the second movement Fuga gave it the feel of an extended cadenza. The muted contrast of the deceptively simple Melodia saw Ehnes deliver exquisite dynamic control before setting a blistering Presto finale." (The Age, 11 November 2013)

Khachaturian Violin Concerto: "Ehnes produces an interpretation of admirable mastery, finding the aggressive and the mellow in this showy display-piece and counteracting all too many performances over past decades that have turned the work's sparkling virtuosity into exhibitions of misguided temperament typified by histrionics and forced, scratchy passage-work. As with pretty well everything that we have heard across previous visits, Ehnes here works with a controlled strength that gives you confidence in his interpretation's integrity, powering through the outer allegro movements and giving the central andante a wealth of expressive variety, his bowing a continual pleasure to watch for its assurance and judgment." (The Age, 15 November 2013)