Saturday, May 13, 2023

James Ehnes in Vancouver

Violinist James Ehnes returned to Vancouver and gave the first of three performances with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under conductor Katharina Wincor. 


Ehnes is truly a wonder of the violin world. Even among the many distinguished violinists playing today, he stands out with the musicality of his music making, and the beauty of his intonation and sound. In Korngold’s gorgeous violin concerto, whose thematic material is drawn from many of the composer’s film scores, he played with a freedom and utter expressiveness that was utterly disarming. In the final movement, the mild-mannered Ehnes played with an effortless and rousing virtuosity that simply took one’s breath away. 


Wincor and the orchestra provided a sensitive tapestry of sound for the solo violin, though I wished at times that Wincor would take a more assertive role in the Korngold’s beautiful writing for the orchestra. This was especially apparent in the swashbuckling third movement, with music from the film The Price and the Pauper, where the orchestra could have played with much more swagger.


It was truly a testament to Ehnes’ talent that he switched to the viola in the second half of the concert, playing Bartok’s unfinished viola concerto (which was completed by Hungarian-born composer Tibor Serly, based on Bartok’s drafts) with the same assurance and beauty of sound that we heard from his violin playing. Even though the viola plays continuously, one could clearly discern three disparate “movements” in the work. The first movement’s sparse scoring highlights the quietly mournful melodies of the viola solo, something that Ehnes sensitively highlighted with his playing. The soloist played the chorale-like slow movement with palpable depth and feeling, as much as he brought out the wildness of the folkdance-like third movement. As in the Korngold, Wincor and the musicians of the orchestra travelled with Ehnes through the gentle lyricism of this music of Bartok’s late years.


Katharina Wincor is a talented conductor with ideas about the music, and she drew a truly beautiful sound from the orchestra. The opening work – Johann Strauss’ On the Beautiful Blue Danube – was well played indeed, but alas terribly un-Viennese. The much need lilt that makes or breaks any performance of this work was missing, as was breathing space between the notes, with the result that the music did not really take off. What was also missing was a palpable sense of nostalgia, nostalgia for a world that perhaps never existed.


In Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which closed the concert, she drew an incredibly rich sound from the VSO strings in the introduction. I did feel, however, that she dwelled a little too much on the sound and less so on the forward motion of the music. In the Lassan section that follows the introduction, she indeed brought out Liszt’s indication of mesto, but not so much the composer’s tempo indication of andante. This slowness somehow took away some of the music’s tension and upset the tempo relationship of the opening with the rest of the work, for instance, the extremely vividly played Friska. The result was a performance, albeit well executed, that seemed out of proportion and lacked cohesion.


Nevertheless, it was a concert that not only showcased the artistry and virtuosity of James Ehnes, but the outstanding players of the orchestra. It is also a very interesting example of thoughtful programming, one that represents four very different art works of the Central European tradition. It would be interesting to hear this young conductor again in other repertoire, to have a more complete picture of her artistry.









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