Sunday, 9 June 2013

Seven Violin Concertos. And James Ehnes

The nine years 1938-47 witnessed the birth of no fewer than seven violin concertos that are still – 70 years on – being played and recorded. Quite a phenomenon for a turbulent period. The seven concertos are by Nikolai Myaskovsky (1938), Béla Bartok (1938), Benjamin Britten (1939), William Walton (1939), Aram Khachaturian (1940), Erich Korngold (1945) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1947). Seven concertos in nine years!

Not that they all swept to instant fame, of course. At that period, the world was somewhat busy with everyone fighting each other. And music with themes, tunes and melodies attracted ugly scowls from the musical establishment, still advocating serialism and atonality. Seventy years on, however, the seven have gained a fair degree of acceptance. The lovely Myaskovsky concerto is still something of a rarity, despite it having been championed by Vadim Repin, amongst others (Repin's recording of the work with Valery Gergiev is a real classic). The first Shostakovich concerto has entered the ranks of much-played and much-recorded works. Personally, I am not too interested in the Walton concerto, which seems to me to be clever rather than deeply felt. I can get through the Bartok, but he is not my kind of composer.

The Britten concerto has sprung into prominence over the past few years; I have just acquired a new recording of the work by James Ehnes (who has often performed it) and tomorrow will see the delivery of yet another new recording, this time from Frank Peter Zimmermann (who has also performed it frequently). The Ehnes is coupled with the first Shostakovich concerto; the Zimmermann will feature the two violin concertos by Szymanowski – another non-serial composer from the 1930s.

The new Ehnes CD is superb; the orchestra is the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Karabits. Ehnes tackles both the Britten and Shostakovich with aplomb, with breath-taking accuracy and immaculate taste. For anyone who likes these two not dissimilar concertos, this CD is a perfect gift. If I have to confess to a slight hesitation when faced with well-near perfection, it is that Ehnes rarely shows much personal or emotional involvement (a quality extremely difficult to define). But Janine Jansen in the Britten, and Leila Josefowicz in the Shostakovich, to take just two examples, reveal in their playing that they really feel this music. Ehnes is a marvellous violin player and a perfect musician; my minor doubts are for the same reason I often react with some hesitation to much of the playing of David Oistrakh or Nathan Milstein – both supreme violinists, but without that extra 5% one gets from deep, emotional commitment. Anyway; enough of nit-picking. Ehnes gets my three stars in both works.

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