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Beethoven, Tchaikovsky : James Ehnes (violin), Scotish Chamber Orchestra / Louis Langrée, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 12. 3.2009 (SRT)

Beethoven: Overture, Egmont
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

This concert was subtitled Dramatic Beethoven, and that was certainly what we got for the opening Egmont Overture.  There was drama aplenty here with surging cellos and a blazing tutti for the anguished first subject and a good sense of pace and control for the victorious climax.  The SCO strings played with a distinctive period twang and were largely vibrato-free for this and the Seventh Symphony, though the symphony lacked a bit of the extra dramatic edge.  The pacing was just right, the chords of the slow introduction feeling vast and expansive, while the dactylic rhythms of the first subject bounded into view like a breath of fresh air.  The Allegretto felt sluggish and earth-bound, though, especially during the radiant counter-melody.  The scherzo certainly had pace, though again the Trio lacked that last bit of bite.  Energy did arrive for the finale (how could it not?) and the headlong surge of Beethoven’s insane rhythms carried the music “hurtling into the abyss” (to quote Conrad Wilson’s scholarly programme note).

The stand-out performance of the evening, however, was the Tchaikovsky.  James Ehnes is a truly remarkable virtuoso.  His technical accomplishment is breathtaking: the passage leading from the end of the first movement exposition into the development was really arresting, and his cadenza was astonishing, dashing off double-stopped glissandi and trills like it was all in a day’s work.  But what made him even more special was the ease with which he played – there were no showy gestures or dramatic movements: instead he stood almost completely still and let all the drama flow even more powerfully from his violin.  That didn’t stop his performance from bristling with energy in the finale as well as catching the songful quality of the canzonetta.  For his encore he played the Allegro assai from Bach’s third sonata where again he stood stock still and his left hand barely seemed to move.  This made him even more thrilling to watch, however, and the music pouring from his violin was exceptional.  Langrée’s control of the orchestra was at its most successful here, too.  He pointed little phrases, such as the opening sigh on the violins, in a way that shed new light on them and he drew out exciting details in the orchestra, especially Tchaikovsky’s glorious woodwind writing which I’ve never heard coming to the fore in the way I did here.  He was also not above a bit of humour, such as in accentuating the hurdy-gurdy element of the cello accompaniment in the finale’s second theme.  I’ll remember this evening less for Dramatic Beethoven than for Show-Stopping Tchaikovsky.

Simon Thompson

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