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Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Violin Concerto in D minor (1940) [37:50]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 7, Op. 108 (1960) [11:43]
String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110 (1960) [19:52]
James Ehnes (violin)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
Ehnes Quartet (James Ehnes (violin), Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola), Robert deMaine (cello))
rec. November 2013 Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne, Australia (Khachaturian), July 2013, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, USA (Shostakovich)
ONYX 4121 [69:36]

Onyx here offer us a snapshot of the work of James Ehnes the talented Canadian concert violinist - one of the foremost violinists of his generation who in recent years I have seen play in concert half a dozen times at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.
 
A Soviet citizen for the majority of his life, Khachaturian was proud of his national heritage and this often shows in his use of Armenian folk inspired themes. Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto is often given a poor press I guess for the trivial nature of its themes and the lack of emotional depth in his writing. The score was quickly composed during the summer of 1940 at his country home in Staraya Ruza. Bearing a dedication to his friend David Oistrakh who gave the premiere in Moscow the violin concerto won the Stalin Prize in 1941. Crammed with memorable melody, rhythmic energy and vivid colour this is a most appealing score that deserves to be heard more often.
 
Substantial and highly tuneful, the opening Allegro is boldly played here with plenty of rhythmic vitality. Providing a splendid contrast to the outer movements the central Andante with its gorgeous main theme radiates intense poignancy and felt far more affecting than I had expected. Ehnes’ urgent and energetic finale is full of gypsy spirit and freshness without feeling too sweet-toothed. This is one of the finest digital versions of the concerto I have heard and the support from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth is warm and persuasive.
 
In three linked movements the String Quartet No. 7 is the shortest of all Shostakovich’s quartets lasting here just under twelve minutes. He dedicated the score to the memory his wife Nina Varzarin who had died in 1954. A feeling of searching and spinning suffuses the biting opening movement but I didn’t quite feel the impression “lightly grotesque” as described in the notes. Gravely sad and serving as a lament the central Lento evokes bleakness and austerity. Anger and frustration characterise the playing in the closing movement which is vigorous and furious. Around point 2:27 the mood begins to shift becoming quieter and calmer with an melancholic undertow.
 
In spite of its prevailing sadness the String Quartet No. 8 remains a highly popular choice for quartets. Designed in five connected movements this is performed more often than all of the other fourteen string quartets in total. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Dresden Quartet’ it is not difficult to imagine the work as a depiction of the ruined city of Dresden, destroyed by Allied bombers dropping high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices in February 1945. In 1960 Shostakovich had been working near Dresden on the score for the Soviet film ‘Five Days - Five Nights’; a film about the destruction of Dresden and it was there he wrote the quartet. Playing with real concentration the Ehnes Quartet proves an understanding interpreter able to maintain the required intensity of melancholy. I especially relished the wonderful yet short Allegro molto, played with considerable spring and with an outlandish rather grotesque klezmer-like feel. The following Allegretto has the unsettling character of a haunted waltz. My steadfast guide in the set of fifteen Shostakovich string quartets is the Emerson Quartet recorded in 1994/99 at Aspen, Colorado on Deutsche Grammophon. Although not a full time quartet the Ehnes provides splendid performances coming some way to matching the Emerson’s excellence.
 
The Onyx engineers have provided pleasingly clear sound. In the concerto for my taste the violin could have been just a touch further forward.
 
This rather unusual mix of concerto and chamber music only serves to increase the desirability of this release.
 
Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich string quartets