Concertos for violin and orchestra:
No.1 in B flat, K207
No.2 in D, K211
No.3 in G, K216
No.4 in D, K218
No.5 in A, K219
Adagio in E, K261
Rondo in B flat, K269
Rondo in C, K373
Mozart Anniversary Orchestra
James Ehnes (violin)
Recorded between August 18-21 2005 in the George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Canada
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: May 2006
CD No: CBC RECORDS
Duration: 2 hours 23 minutes
We know about the high quality of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and may have come across the Toronto Symphony. Bruno Weil and Tafelmusik have impressed over several years and more recently Kevin Mallon’s challenging recordings of 18th-century music have made an impact (on Naxos), but could it be that we are still ignoring Canada as a source of musical excellence?
This comprehensive collection of Mozart’s music for violin and orchestra from CBC finds an unfamiliar ensemble, presumably gathered for the occasion and sharing leading players from Canadian orchestras. To their credit the musicians play as if they had been working together for years. Their responsiveness to the violinist’s direction is admirable. So often, the use of a soloist/director can result in imprecision, but here there is an easy flow and absolute rhythmic certainty. James Ehnes conveys his conception of the music to his orchestral colleagues superbly. Additionally he ensures that even in the most modest examples of accompaniment, the orchestral colouring remains vivid.
Production is by the veteran Max Wilcox (with Ehnes as co-producer) and with engineer Wayne Deering capturing an ideal balance. The orchestra is placed in an excellent acoustic featuring considerable resonance, which has an ideally even die-away and never clouds the melodic lines. There are consistent features in Ehnes’s approach. In particular, slow movements are not allowed to linger yet the phrasing, both of soloist and orchestra, remains spacious.
In the First Concerto the horns – pitched in high B flat – play superbly, their glowing timbre helps enhance the elegant tones of this fine little orchestra (only 21 strings are used). Where virtuosity is required (and the flying scales in the main theme of the finale of this concerto are an example) Ehnes glides through these deceptively demanding moments with great elegance. This and similar passages make great demands; Ehnes weaves them into the music with admirable absence of showiness.
The Second Concerto has never seemed to have quite the youthful inspiration of K207 (the rather ordinary first theme has always seemed a little mundane for Mozart) but Ehnes still brings his effectively light touch to this relatively simple music). His cadenza to the second movement is a particularly fine example of musical reticence – no need for show here. Ehnes has written all the cadenzas himself (Mozart did not provide any) and they are always tasteful. The later concertos lead him into something a little more adventurous but all the cadenzas are suitable within their contexts.
The three separate movements – an Adagio and two Rondos – are presented with care. I suppose the listener could programme them so that the rondos surround the Adagio but that does not really make another ‘concerto’. The Adagio was intended as a replacement for Concerto No.5 in order to pacify a Viennese performer, but it is never used in that way. It has a touching, sad beauty, however. The two Rondos are favourite encore pieces for violinists: K269 is jolly and gentle – this time Mozart’s intention was to replace the finale of K207 – how fortunate that this did not happen, the original is immensely more suitable and rather more interesting.
Disc 2 provides the three best-known concertos; most famous violinists have attempted them for recording. If, for example, you share my enthusiasm for Isaac Stern’s reading of the popular No.3, what should be the reaction to Ehnes’s stylish 18th-century approach? Stern’s view exploits the hindsight of 200 years of music-making; Ehnes uses modern research to represent the style and textures of Mozart’s day without attempting closely to imitate the old instrumental sounds. My reaction to this is that there is more than one way of performing Mozart and Ehnes has chosen a very good way. In No.3 he is firm and forward moving. The occasional improvised flourish is thrown in (in addition to the cadenza that is) and, as he explains in his booklet notes, he takes each example of a grace note on its merits and plays it accordingly (in the first movement there are a number of examples where a choice has to be made between short or long ornaments). Like most ‘historically aware’ stylists, Ehnes tends to favour ‘long’ but there are moments when the short grace note is convincing.
To me Ehnes’s virtues in these last three concertos represent a combination of the excellent qualities of two famous violinists – Josef Suk and Wolfgang Schneiderhan. Both are notable for their objectivity of purpose. In No.3 Ehnes recalls Suk’s firm, no-nonsense straightforwardness combined with sensitivity of phrasing. In No.4, a gentler work, Schneiderhan’s eloquent and expansive phrasing is recalled. In No.5, Ehnes certainly recalls the qualities of those two great violinists. I especially like the way in which, without hurrying, he makes the finale’s ‘Turkish’ episode angry whilst retaining the overall feeling of cheerfulness.
These are very special performances and they show that it is possible to challenge the listener with refreshing new ideas without using the music merely as a vehicle to display the performer’s skills. I feel that James Ehnes has the balance just right – he presents a valid view of Mozart’s intentions but we are left appreciating Mozart rather than thinking about the violinist’s technique.
This is an admirable production – right down to the carefully presented booklet that contains the soloist’s own immensely readable, clear-cut, scholarly notes.