Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 [26:37]
Octet in E-flat, Op. 20 [30:44]
James Ehnes (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society (James Ehnes, Erin Keefe, Andrew Wan, Augustin Haedelich (violins); Cynthia Phelps, Richard OíNeil (violas); Robert deMaine, Edward Arron (cellos))
rec. live, Warwick Arts Centre, UK, 30 January 2010 (concerto); Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 9 July 2010 (octet)
ONYX 4060 [57:31]

We are very lucky that Canadian violinist James Ehnes is so frequent a visitor to the UK; certainly, this recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, recorded live in Warwick with the Philharmonia, is testament to the great work that he continues to do with British groups. Ehnesí view of the Mendelssohn concerto is fiery and impassioned, while being admirably tender at turns. He is imploring and swift in the opening melody, but the first movementís second theme is fragile and intentionally hesitant. Throughout the Andante, Ehnes holds the long melody with a beautiful legato, and his finale sparkles: a wonderful little shift in the left hand into the finaleís lyrical counter-melody [2:29] is evidence of the ease with which he is able to shape the music. He does occasionally push a little too hard such as at 4:31, where his power produces one of the very few moments of intonational uncertainty. But his sound on the whole is wonderfully warm, which is matched throughout by the orchestra. A very quiet audience and a good reverberant acoustic round off this very attractive performance.

Ehnes pairs one of Mendelssohnís final masterpieces with his very earliest, the miraculously precocious Octet of 1825. No matter how often one hears the piece, it remains difficult to believe that it is the work of a sixteen year old. Too advanced to be considered juvenilia, the Octet nevertheless radiates the passions of youth, something which mature musicians can fail to grasp. Ehnes and his colleagues from the Seattle Chamber Music Society certainly present an immaculate account of the Octet, but Iím not sure they capture the musicís exuberance.

It begins very promisingly, with Ehnes and co setting an ideal tempo for the opening Allegro moderato. This is a lean and subtly shaped performance, the virtues of which suit the first movement very well. But I have doubts about this ensembleís conception of the remaining three movements; that youthful fervour is largely absent from the Andante, and the Scherzo lacks a vital degree of sparkle. Thatís not to say that there arenít many fine moments; Ehnes, for example, dispatches the fiendishly difficult trilling passage at the centre of the Scherzo with nonchalant ease, but generally fails to lead the ensemble into the dynamic extremes specifically requested by Mendelssohn in the score. This is a good performance of the Octet, but not a great one; my own preference is for Hausmusik Londonís performance on Virgin Veritas (5618092), though some will dislike the period instruments and lowered pitch.

Andrew Morris

A warm Mendelssohn Concerto but a cool Octet from James Ehnes.