James Ehnes plays Bartók’s Violin Concertos and Viola Concerto [BBC Philharmonic/Noseda; Chandos]

0 of 5 stars

Violin Concerto No.1
Violin Concerto No.2
Viola Concerto [completed by Tibor Serly]

James Ehnes (violin & viola)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Recorded in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester – 8 November 2009 (Violin Concerto No.2), 1 November 2010 (Violin Concerto No.1) & 27 February 2011

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: November 2011
Duration: 78 minutes



James Ehnes has been earning himself a formidable reputation in the last few years; now he adds the rare feat of recording Béla Bartók’s violin and viola concertos, works that cover the span of their composer’s life. The First Violin Concerto was never performed or published during Bartók’s life; the Second is often ascribed to Bartók’s middle period and is one of the pillars of the instrument’s 20th-century repertoire; and the Viola Concerto remained unfinished at the time of the composer’s death, coming to us here in the version prepared by Bartók’s friend and fellow-composer, Tibor Serly.

These are three wonderfully contrasting works and in Ehnes they have a soloist equal to their every challenge. In the two-movement First Violin Concerto from 1907-8, he sustains the long lyrical arch of the first movement with an outstanding feel for its flow. He’s taut and skipping in the exuberant finale, which shows how well defined Bartók’s musical language was in these early days. The real test, though, comes in the Second Concerto of 1938, which barely allows the soloist a moment’s reprieve; although cast in a typical fast-slow-fast format, the work plays complicated games with its material whereby variations are subjected to variations of their own. The effect can be quite episodic, but Ehnes finds clarity of structure which brings the piece into focus. His maintaining of force and momentum through the first-movement cadenza and coda, for example, is quite remarkable. I listened to his technical feats in the finale slack-jawed in amazement: rapid parallel double-stopped chords despatched with perfect intonation, for example; and these are not tricks of the editing desk.

Ehnes’s performance of the Viola Concerto (written for William Primrose) displays the same effortless control and spontaneity. Throughout he is outstandingly supported by Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic. If anything is missing from these performances, though, it’s the sense of an instrumentalist with a recognisable and individual sound. Thomas Zehetmair’s Berlin Classics recording of the violin concertos with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer might not be quite as polished, but there’s a little more personality in Zehetmair’s idiomatic way with Bartók’s rustic rhythms. Arabella Steinbacher’s versions for Pentatone, with the Suisse Romande Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski, doesn’t quite match Ehnes’s total perfection of technique (it’s a close contest, though), but is more warmly emotive in tender moments. Ehnes’s recording is an amazing achievement, however – and is blessed with terrific sound –, and will not disappoint any lover of this music or of great violin playing.

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