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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 (1945) [25:02]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto, Op.14 (1939–40) [23:32]
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Violin Concerto (1938-39, rev. 1943) [30:02]
James Ehnes (violin)
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Bramwell Tovey
rec. 22-23 February, 2006 (Korngold), 6-7 June, 2006 (Barber; Walton), Orpheum Theater, Vancouver, Canada. DDD
ONYX 4016 [78:53]

These recordings are identically coupled on CBC SMCD 5241


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Each generation brings forth a set of musicians that become household names during their lives and legends after their passing. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Heifetz, Horowitz, Piatigorsky, Rubinstein and the like ruled. By the 1950s it was Van Cliburn, Philippe Entremont and Michael Rabin taking the lead. In the 1970s a tremendous wave of talent in the form of Pinchas Zuckerman, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman and Jacqueline DuPre had taken the world by storm. Another turn of the clock has occurred and names like Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, and Evgeny Kissin are everyday concert happenings. Clearly at the head of this class is the brilliant Canadian violinist James Ehnes. A boyish thirty years old, Ehnes is as down to earth as your favorite sweat shirt. Until that is, he picks up his violin. This collection of three great violin concertos from the troubled era of the Second World War, show James Ehnes at his finest.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was proclaimed by Mahler to be a genius when he was but ten years old. By the time he had reached twenty, the greatest musicians in the world were playing his music, and his opera Die Tote Stadt was the most performed opera of the 1920s. By 1934 it was too dangerous to be a Jew in a German-speaking country, and he left for the United States where he landed a lucrative contract in Hollywood composing music for films. The violin concerto, first performed by Jascha Heifetz is an amalgam of themes from his film scores. It is full of lyrical, sentimental tunes with lush romantic orchestration.

Ehnes’ playing is just the right combination of seriousness and Hollywood. The romanticism is not lost on him, but he never gets saccharine. His tone is rich and warm and in the big sweeping melodies, he sings like a good tenor. Nor does he fall short of the virtuosity needed for the rollicking final movement. 

Samuel Barber’s concerto was until the era of the compact disc more or less neglected. Commissioned by a wealthy business man for his adopted son, the work had a troubled start. The commissioner thought it not difficult enough, hence the addition of the fiendish third movement, which said commissioner, thought unplayable. The concerto finally made its way into the repertoire a decade or so ago, and is one of the most played violin concertos on the circuit now.

Mr. Ehnes has some major competition in Gil Shaham’s exemplary recording with Previn from a decade or so ago, which also contains a fine rendition of the Korngold.  There are also excellent recordings by Elmar Oliveira, Hilary Hahn and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Ehnes need not worry about losing out to his colleagues though. 

As with the Korngold, Ehnes plays with passion and conviction. The achingly beautiful melody of the second movement is so well performed that as a listener, you can forget to breathe for a few minutes. And the finger-busting finale comes across with the ease of a warm-up etude. Ehnes is in full command of the score. 

The most welcome surprise on the program was the Walton concerto, rarely heard and for no good reason. Not as tuneful as the other two works, this is a concerto made of the tight harmonies and unique chord choices that make Walton’s music so refreshing. This concerto added fuel to my increasing enthusiasm for this composer’s work, and with a performance so full of panache as this one, the addition is welcome indeed. 

Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Orchestra seem to be the perfect partners for Ehnes’ taut sense of inner rhythm and his rhapsodic way with a good melody. The orchestra produces a rich string sound and spot-on wind and brass playing. Tempi fit the music like a glove and the underlying energy that the orchestra provides for the soloist is just perfect. 

Rounded out by excellent notes and a warm, vibrant recorded sound and you have a complete winner here. James Ehnes is that rare musician blessed with ample technique, and something serious and winsome to say about the music he plays. That he is becoming an international star is no surprise with playing like this. Yet for all his virtuoso abilities, he is a player of refined tastes and musical modesty. His playing serves the music, and one never gets any other impression but that he loves every minute of what he’s doing. Don’t hesitate to jump online and order a copy of this one!

Kevin Sutton 

Michael Cookson has also listened to this disc:

The bold and exciting independent designer label Onyx was launched in 2005 with recordings from the renowned performers: violinist Viktoria Mullova; the Borodin String Quartet; pianist Pascal Rogé and soprano Barbara Bonney. As the recipient of review copies of several Onyx releases I have been impressed with their programme content, the consistently high standard of performance and sound quality. On this Onyx release young Canadian violinist James Ehnes is the soloist in a thrilling and generous programme of three late-Romantic violin concertos from the pens of twentieth-century composers Korngold; Barber and Walton. 

I was especially delighted to receive this Onyx release as the Walton score is my most often played twentieth-century concerto and I have collected a large number of versions. The Barber is another much-loved violin concerto of which I also have several accounts in my collection. A different matter entirely is the Korngold concerto as I do not own a recording and have only heard the work a couple of times on the radio.          

The first score on this release is the Korngold Violin Concerto. From an early age the Moravian born Korngold wrote a large number of works in many genres but he is best known for his enormous success with his many scores to blockbuster epic and romantic films from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen. At the request of theatre director Max Reinhardt, Korngold visited Hollywood, USA in 1934 to successfully arrange Mendelssohn’s incidental music for his celebrated 1935 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ staring James Cagney as Bottom. Korngold a greenhorn to the world of the Silver Screen wrote, “When I came to Hollywood, I knew no more about films and their making than any other mortal who buys his ticket at the box office.” The next year Korngold signed a contract with the giant Warner Brothers Corporation to work for their famous Hollywood film factory. The dangerous situation for European Jews with the advance of National Socialism in Austria forced Korngold in 1938 to seek exile in the USA. 

Korngold’s 1935 score to ‘Captain Blood’ helped launch Errol Flynn’s film career and his music to ‘Anthony Adverse’ won an Oscar in 1936 for the best film score. Other notable film scores by Korngold included: ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ (1937); ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938) that won him his second Oscar; ‘Juarez’ (1939); ‘The Sea Hawk’ (1940); ‘The Sea Wolf” (1941); ‘King’s Row’ (1941) and ‘Deception’ (1946). Korngold composed his Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 in 1945 and in the score he utilises melodies from four of his film scores: Another Dawn’; ‘Juarez’; ‘Anthony Adverse’ and ‘The Prince and the Pauper’. The Violin Concerto was premiered in 1947 by Jascha Heifetz but it has not been taken seriously in some quarters. Music critic Irving Kolodin viewed the score as “More corn than gold,” and the influential music author Mark Morris has written, “…the sickly sweet Violin Concerto…”.          

In the opening movement moderato nobile I was immediately struck by James Ehnes’s gloriously warm and golden timbre in Korngold’s passionate outpouring. The sound world of Prokofiev’s influential second Violin Concerto (1935) and the Walton Violin Concerto are never far away and Ehnes plays virtually continuously throughout the score. The central movement Romance has an unrelenting yearning of an almost tear-jerking quality that is marvellously caught by the authoritative Ehnes. Rigorously, brisk and agitated playing from Ehnes in the allegro assai vivace: finale where rhythm and melody are blended almost coarsely by Korngold. Ehnes builds up at 5:36 towards the blockbuster coda that becomes a frenzied race to the finishing line. The brass fanfares at 6:36-6:39 and 6:48-6:55 are startlingly effective.                 

I am delighted with this performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto by James Ehnes on Onyx and I will certainly not be actively searching for an alternative version in a hurry. Although I cannot vouch for them personally as they are not in my collection there are several highly praised versions of the Korngold Violin Concerto that are likely to be encountered in the catalogues. Notably those from Anne-Sophie Mutter and the LSO under André Previn recorded in London in 2003 available on both Deutsche Grammophon CD 474 515-2 & SACD 474 874-2 and from Itzhak Perlman and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, again under André Previn, on EMI Classics 7243 5 62590 2 7. There is also a Penguin Rosette winning performance from Gil Shaham with the LSO, yet again under André Previn, on Deutsche Grammophon 439 886-2 that was recorded in London in 1993 that has the advantage of being coupled with an acclaimed version of the Barber Violin Concerto. Often mentioned in positive terms is the mono recording from the famous Jascha Heifetz that he recorded in Hollywood, USA in 1953 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under Alfred Wallenstein on Vol. 21 of the ‘Heifetz Collection’ on RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026617522. 

Barber’s Violin Concerto was written between 1939–40 and has become a greatly loved score both in the recording studio and the concert hall, although, its development was at times a controversial one. The work was conceived as a commission from the successful Philadelphia industrialist and philanthropist Samuel Fels who was the manufacturer of Fels Naptha a popular household soap and a board member at the Curtis Institute. Fels required the score for his adopted son and heir the violinist Iso Briselli. Barber took his advance and began composing the Violin Concerto in the summer of 1939 in Switzerland. In that autumn Barber sent the first two movements to Briselli who according to the Briselli family responded with, “enthusiasm and admiration” which is contrary to published reports that Briselli had “complained that the music was too simple and not brilliant enough for a concerto.” Barber continued composing the third and final movement in Paris before quickly leaving the troubles in Europe to sail to the relative safety of the USA. Barber later submitted the final movement to the soloist in the summer of 1940 who apparently was not satisfied with its suitability to the first two movements. It has often been inferred that Barber, to pay back Iso Briselli for implying that the score was too easy, deliberately made the final movement fiendishly difficult. Iso Briselli it seems suggested that Barber make some revisions to the final movement which Barber declined to make. My understanding is that the Briselli family refute the contention that Barber’s commission was in jeopardy and that Iso Briselli ever said that the movement was too difficult or unplayable. Albert Spalding was secured as soloist to give the official premiere performance of the completed score in February 1941. I believe that Iso Briselli did go on to play the score privately. 

As with the Korngold Violin Concerto I was immediately aware of the influence of Prokofiev’s second Violin Concerto (1935) although a check of the composition dates seems to reveal that Barber would not have known Walton’s Violin Concerto. In the opening movement allegro Ehnes demonstrates that he is at one with Barber’s eloquently Romantic melodies and high drama. The wonderful lilting melody of the extended oboe solo heralds the highly passionate character of the andante movement. From his entrance at 2:31 Ehnes is seductive in Barber’s searing and ravishing love music. Joshua Bell on Decca takes a more intense and emotionally expressive approach which on the whole I prefer. This is electrifyingly confident playing from Ehnes that is bursting with life in this tour de force closing movement marked presto in moto perpetuo.                        

I was pleased to hear this excellent version of the Barber Violin Concerto from James Ehnes on Onyx, however, it is difficult to look much further than the 1998 ‘Gramophone Concerto Award’ winning account that is urbane, warmly lyrical and highly expressive from Joshua Bell and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under David Zinman, recorded at Baltimore, USA in 1996, on Decca 476 1723. Other versions from my collection worthy of praise are the boldly assured and urgent 1964 Manhattan, New York interpretation from the renowned Isaac Stern and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein on Sony Classical Theta SMK 60004 and a stylish and clear-sighted reading, made in Glasgow 2001, from James Buswell and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Marin Alsop on Naxos 8.559044. An account that I have no personal knowledge of that has gained considerable acclaim is the 1993 London performance from Gil Shaham with the LSO under André Previn on Deutsche Grammophon 439 886-2. This is the recording mentioned above that has the Penguin Rosette winning performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto as its coupling. Although not a version that I have in my collection renowned reviewer David Hurwitz has given considerable acclaim to Hilary Hahn’s 1999 award winning account with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff on Sony Classical SK89029. 

The final work on this Onyx release is the increasingly popular Walton Violin Concerto a score so infused with Mediterranean warmth and passion. Walton’s reputation steadily increased with a series of successful scores; notably Façade (1922-23); the Viola Concerto (1929); Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) and his Symphony No. 1 (1935). Regarded as a composer who was different to those of the traditional English pastoral school Walton wrote in a more contemporary and cosmopolitan style to that of his fellow countryman. He was influenced by composers such as Stravinsky and Sibelius, and by a passion for American jazz. 

Walton wrote three string concertos that soloists have kept pretty much on the fringes of their performance repertoire. However, the concertos have received acclaim from music critics and it seems that audiences are gradually gaining a fondness for the scores; especially the Violin Concerto if the amount of recordings is anything to go by. It was Jascha Heifetz who in 1936 commissioned Walton to compose a Violin Concerto. Owing to work in progress on his film scores and other promised projects Walton was only able to undertake work on the score two years later between 1938-39. The Violin Concerto was said to have been written under the inspiration of his older married lover and muse the wealthy English Viscountess Alice Wimborne at their idyllically located villa that overlooked the Mediterranean. In Tony Palmer’s 1981 documentary film profile of Sir William Walton ‘At the Haunted End of the Day’ Walton talks about his Violin Concerto, “Most of it was written at Ravello, near Amalfi (Italy), at the Villa Cimbrone where I spent a lot of time with a lady I loved very dearly, Alice Wimborne…Very intelligent, very kind…We had a little room outside the main gate. Alice was very good at making me work and would get very cross if I mucked about.” The score was premiered in December 1939 at the Severance Hall in Cleveland, USA by Jascha Heifetz with the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski. Walton subsequently made substantial revisions to the score in 1943.

In Walton’s Violin Concerto one immediately senses that Ehnes’s playing is deeply felt and conveys sultry Mediterranean warmth. The robust energy provided by Ehnes in the opening movement andante tranquillo from 3:52 surpasses any of my rival versions in a way that left me exhausted by the experience. The orchestral support from Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is simply remarkable. I loved Ehnes’s flowing and lyrical playing in the hauntingly beautiful slow movement. However, I have yet to hear another performer provide that special singing quality to their playing as Menuhin displays on EMI. In the final movement vivace the balance of Ehnes with the Orchestra seems perfectly judged. Especially impressive is how Ehnes provides an almost gypsy-like feel to the music at 2:24-2:49 in a way that I had not previously encountered. In the swifter sections Ehnes’s jagged rhythmic bite is spirited and rugged. From points 4:14-5:47 and 7:29-11:40 Ehnes’s beautiful and tender playing is a match for Menuhin on EMI Classics and Kennedy on EMI. At 6:10-7:19 Ehnes cranks-up the volume effortlessly and boldly, and at 11:49-12:48 he paces a tremendously full-bodied conclusion to the score.           

The Walton Violin Concerto seems to have been especially well served in the recording studio over the years and this Onyx account from James Ehnes can sit comfortably with the finest recordings. My first recording of the work that I still own, is on vinyl and is performed by Yehudi Menuhin and the LSO under the baton of the composer at the Abbey Road Studios in London in 1969 on EMI ASD 2542. The recording is now available on compact disc as part of ‘The Walton Edition’ on EMI Classics 5 65005 2. This Menuhin performance has an intensity of expression and immediacy not found in other versions, together with an alert lyricism and remains my first choice version. Other excellent accounts worthy of consideration are those from Nigel Kennedy with the RPO under André Previn for its warmth, ardour and commanding musicianship recorded at the Abbey Road Studios in London in 1987 on EMI CDC 7 49628 2 and the 1998 ‘Gramophone Concerto Award’ winning version that has a cultured refinement and high expression from Joshua Bell and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under David Zinman from Baltimore, USA in 1996 on Decca 476 1723. I have enjoyed hearing for its keenly felt sense of drama and commitment the account from Ida Haendel and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Berglund recorded in Southampton, England in 1977 on EMI Classics 7 64202 2. Also rewarding is the reading of perception and robust assurance from Dong-Suk Kang with the English Northern Philharmonia under Paul Daniel from 1997 in Leeds, England on Naxos 8.554325. Worth hearing, although not especially Waltonesque in its approach, is the passionately exciting and well cleaned-up historical version from the celebrated Jascha Heifetz and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goossens. The recording was originally made by RCA Victor in 1941 at Cincinnati, USA and is available on Naxos8.110939. 

This disc from James Ehnes has the advantage of remarkable support from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey. The Onyx engineers have provided a warm and clearly detailed sound quality and the booklet notes from Keith Horner are written to a high standard. I had to laugh when Keith Horner was discussing the commission of the Barber Violin Concerto by Samuel Fels the manufacturer of Fels Naptha household soap; he writes that Barber, “must have wished he could have washed his hands of the circumstances of the commission.”   

My nominations for 2006 ‘Records of the Year’ have already been made otherwise this release would have been a certainty for inclusion. This generous Onyx recording from James Ehnes of three late-Romantic violin concertos is superbly played and recorded, and deserves the highest possible praise.  

Michael Cookson


Those interested in the controversial background to the writing of Barber’s Violin Concerto may wish to read the perspective from the Briselli family entitled, “The Real Story Behind The Barber Violin Concerto” on this webpage.





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