BARTÓK: Violin Concerto No. 1, BB 48a; Violin Concerto No. 2, BB 117; Viola Concerto, Sz. 120, BB 128 – James Ehnes, violin/ BBC Philharmonic Orch./ Gianandrea Noseda – Chandos CHAN 10690, 77:45 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Joining with Chandos veteran artist Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the Canadian violinist James Ehnes makes his fifth album release for the company in a recording devoted to the Hungarian Béla Bartók (1881-1945). On this album are Bartók’s two concerti for the violin and his only concerto written for the viola. Ehnes’ partnership with Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic is a welcoming reunion to classical music devotees. Followers in this celebrated partnership can recall the team’s first recording project on Chandos in 2004, which was an album devoted to the picturesque and musically-vivid compositions written by Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola. The Dallapiccola was followed by a recording in 2006 with Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, and it took five years before this third album with Bartók’s concertos made its long-awaited appearance. The fastidious efforts of their teamwork, coupled together with the astute Chandos sound engineers, made this a well-deserving wait.
Ehnes focuses on the lyrical and intellectual aspects of the music, as it was evident right off the start with the Violin Concerto No.1. Ehnes`s tone maintains a warm and expressive texture throughout the work, and with the care and attention of Noseda and the BBC musicians, the remainder of the composition juxtaposes between touches of sharp acuity and nostalgia. It begs the listener the question how vivid such a performance would have been, if it was presented as a live concert performance. The Violin Concerto No. 2 has a heavier load of folksy-idioms, in which Bartók challenges his performer. Technically sound and rhythmically-alert, Ehnes leaps and gallops like a victorious knight in this music, and draws on an interpretation that is reminiscent of the great Yehudi Menuhin (with the late Antal Dorati). The final piece on this album, the Viola Concerto, is a very late work of Bartók`s, written during the summer months of 1945. It was left incomplete, but premiered under William Primose who commissioned the work. It was not until 1949 when Bartók`s fellow countryman and a great string player, Tibor Serly, completed the score. This is the version presented by Ehnes, Noseda and the BBC musicians. Under Ehnes’ bow and lyrical interpretation, the Viola Concerto was transformed into a swan song, in which the rustic melodies and rhythmic intonations can easily lead one to draw parallels with the composer`s own Third Piano Concerto written in the same year. A clear structure and pulse remains consistent throughout, both in the hands of the soloist and the orchestra. Listen to the long melodic lines of the solo viola, which are tastefully rendered by Ehnes in the first and second movements. Meanwhile, Noseda and the BBC Orchestra maintain at top form as an accompaniment, providing sympathetic shading as needed. It is, without doubt, the best performance of the three on disc.
James Ehnes` next recording, due for release on the Onyx label before the end of 2011, features Tchaikovsky`s ever-popular Violin Concerto, with the Sydney Symphony under its music director Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ehnes has made a strong case with his rendition on Bartók – will his Tchaikovsky push newer grounds? Stay tuned.
—Patrick P.L. Lam
A cascading sweep of keyboard miniatures