Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy – Borenstein & Walton – James Ehnes plays Elgar

Nimrod Borenstein
If you will it, it is no dream, Op.58 [Philharmonia Orchestra commission: world premiere]
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

James Ehnes (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 June, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Nimrod, Elgar – synonymous through Enigma Variations. But this is Nimrod Borenstein, and the Elgar was his Violin Concerto. Borenstein, born in Tel Aviv in 1969, is stacking up premieres (eight due during this year and next). This Philharmonia Orchestra commission matches the orchestration of Tchaikovsky 5 (which had been a possibility for this concert). The correlation between Borenstein’s title and the music itself seems abstruse, and the invention lacks for character if not suggestiveness; the urgent opening could place us in a ‘chase movie’. These ten minutes, basically fast-slow-fast, were agreeable enough without establishing much beyond expertise, save for a few bars of Shostakovichian loneliness (led by piccolo and flutes) and an elegant dance stamped neoclassical Stravinsky.

James Ehnes. © Benjamin Ealovega 2012This was a demanding programme in terms of its preparation and the two masterworks that followed betrayed a possible lack of rehearsal time. Elgar’s expansive Violin Concerto featured James Ehnes as an intelligent, dignified and shapely soloist, if slightly over-pressing and impersonal at times and also inclined to skate a little too easily over some passages’ profundities and Elgar’s restless being. Ehnes was never glib but could have peered more deeply. Although the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy were never less than attached to their soloist, if sometime threatening to be inexact rather than becoming so, there wasn’t always the interaction between the orchestra and the violinist that this work demands. The latter stages of the slow movement were affectingly inward though and the finale was approached gratifyingly through stealth rather than speed, the ‘accompanied cadenza’ towards the end a moment of tender reflection. Overall though, with a lack of variegation, this was an account that didn’t always fit together and left aspects unexplored.

Vladimir Ashkenazy. Photograph: Decca / Vivianne PurdomWilliam Walton’s First is one of the great symphonies. Ashkenazy is conversant with it, he recorded it (and its companion) some years ago. On this occasion it took a while for rhythms to really gel, but there was power and passion, if not always accurate detailing and unanimous articulations; even so, the opening movement was built as one, as it must be – here with rawness (not inappropriate) and vigour. The scherzo – “with malice”, Walton directs – was rather effete, tension barely simmering, and I wasn’t convinced that some latter timpani salvos were always in the correct place. The ‘melancholic’ slow movement was beautifully done however; led by Kenneth Smith’s poignant flute solo this whole Andante was expressed from somewhere deep within the soul and full of nocturnal breezes and shadows. As for the finale (during which Walton introduces a second timpanist and three percussionists), it had a tearaway thrill at times, and the ‘last post’ trumpet solo near the end was most sensitively placed, the conflagrating close then blazing with conviction. As ever with Ashkenazy his intentions were honest and his conducting enthusiastic, catching the spirit of Walton’s fantastic score if not always its letter, the hard-working Philharmonia Orchestra going that extra mile for a favourite collaborator.

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