Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto, Op. 35 [34:29]
Sérénade Mélancolique, Op. 26 [9:16]
Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34 [8:58]
Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op. 42 [16:48]
James Ehnes (violin)
Sydney Symphony/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor, pianist in Souvenir)
rec. Sydney Opera House, December 2010
ONYX 4076 [69:43]
Back in 2009 I was lucky enough to hear James Ehnes performing the Tchaikovsky concerto in Edinburgh with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (see review). That night has stuck in my memory, even though I’ve heard the concerto a few times since. I commented then that Ehnes was an unshowy musician who nevertheless manages feats of breathtaking virtuosity that make the violin pulsate with life. It’s possible that, as a result of that evening, I listened to this recording through rose-tinted speakers, but I found this disc a marvellous experience, both technically and musically, and it has already qualified as one of my discs of the year.
There are lots of ways to read the Tchaikovsky concerto. Elsewhere I’ve complained about Russian musicians who play this music as if it were raw, untamed passion, emanating straight from the Steppes. There’s an element of that, but that neglects the composer’s love of classicism and his westward-looking refinement. Ehnes has embraced that side of Tchaikovsky. The key word that characterises his playing is grace. Right from the off, his playing glows with such beauty that the violin seems to have a singing quality that suits this music right to the core. This comes into its own in the Canzonetta, but it fits the first movement just as well. The great architecture of this movement ebbs and flows with a beautiful sense of movement, helped by Ashkenazy’s conducting which is controlled and solid without ever imposing a straitjacket. The lyrical sweep of the main subject bursts onto the scene majestically when we hear it in the big tutti at the end of the exposition, but when it first enters Ehnes plays it with an almost withdrawn subtlety that not only introduces it but gives it somewhere to go, a space in which to develop. When we get to the skittish variation of the main theme at the start of the development, he seems to dance around it, playfully turning it over to explore the possibilities of where it could go next. Some may complain that the cadenza lacks an edge of daring, but it’s entirely of a piece with Ehnes’ reading, and if it’s spectacle you’re after then you’ll find it in the finale. Ashkenazy gives a reading of restraint and beauty throughout, but he allows the orchestra to let its hair down in this movement so that there is a flair of Russian pizzazz to the fireworks. The players of the Sydney Symphony play with similar beauty and refinement. It helps that the Onyx engineers have done an outstanding job in capturing the recorded sound with just the right amount of bloom and presence that makes it come alive while avoiding any extraneous noise. This is the finest reading of the concerto that I have come across in a very long time, and I urge lovers of the work to hear it.
Elsewhere there are just as many delights on offer. Ehnes shows another side of himself with the Valse-Scherzo, sharpening his technique and providing much bolder attack, while allowing more room for humour and swing. The Sérénade Mélancolique shows the same beauty as his approach to the concerto, only with a still more wistful, contemplative air. Ashkenazy proves a most sensitive accompanist in the Souvenir d’un lieu cher, which begins with a soulful Méditation which was the planned original slow movement of the violin concerto. It’s an attractive piece, very soulful and, to my ears, rather more Russian-sounding than the concerto’s Canzonetta. The central Scherzo is good fun, but the closing Mélodie is lovely, Tchaikovsky at his most sentimental, and it’s bound to appeal to anyone who doesn’t have a heart of stone. It sets the seal on a wonderful survey of the composer’s works for violin, worthy to set alongside Ehnes’ other excellent recordings for Onyx. This is an altogether outstanding disc.
An altogether outstanding disc.