‘James Ehnes – Britten & Shostakovich’ = BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Violin Concerto; DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Concerto No. 1 – James Ehnes, violin/Bournemouth Sym. Orch./ Kirill Karabits – Onyx Classics ONYX4113, 66:56 (6/11/13) (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) ****:
The Britten Concerto stems from 1938 and was written for the Spanish virtuoso Antonio Brosa at a time when Spain was embroiled in civil war and England had just been thrust into World War Two. Consequently, this is one of Britten’s least colorful and most pessimistic works. It is uncharacteristically brooding and dark. The first movement has touches of the “seaside” Britten, but of the later Peter Grimes bitterness, and some Spanish elements but more of the very contemporaneous Guernica by Picasso wherein needless suffering seems to lurk in the forefront of the painting and the backdrop of this music.
The closing movement is also quite unusual in its passacaglia form with a slowly ponderous bass line under a restless descending dodecaphonic melody. It is beautiful and foreboding all at once and the Concerto closes in a mood that is ambiguous in its modality. It is also one of Britten’s most genuinely moving but sad offerings.
Britten was actually a good friend, mostly through correspondence, of Shostakovich throughout their lives. Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, written nearly ten years after Britten’s, has some things in common, although it is said that Shostakovich had never even heard Britten’s earlier work. First, the Concerto was also written in the throes of war and – to Shostakovich, personally – the looming artistic censorship that Stalin brought to the table.
Similarly to that of the Britten, the first movement in the Shostakovich offers a slow, melodic and ponderous beginning, featuring a sad melancholic violin line written primarily in the lower end of the register. It is labeled a “Nocturne” and does have a very quiet but ominous tone to it. The second movement, Scherzo, is a nervous and propulsive movement that features one of Shostakovich’s trademarks; his “DSCH” monogram (D-Eb-C-B) and presages some of the manic intensity of the Tenth Symphony.
The third movement shifts gears again, dramatically, into Shostakovich’s own use of a passacaglia. The solo violin sings a lovely, but mournful, melody over the gradus of the lower strings. In many ways, this movement and the subsequent cadenza are the heart of the Concerto providing one continuous outpouring of emotion that is alternately hopeful and despondent. This is arguably one of the twentieth century’s most memorable benchmarks for contemporary violin concerti.
The cadenza which links the Passacaglia with the ensuing Burleske is deeply felt and, as is customary, reflects previously heard material as well as presaging elements of the finale. The closing Burleske is one of Shostakovich’s typically spiky, nervous and ‘sarcastic’ fast movements, sounding like Russian dance music in parody (and with plenty of “arco-gymnastics” for the soloist). The work closes on a briefly bold, triumphant declamation from the horns and plowed through by the soloist and percussion.
These two works have not been paired on a recording before, to my knowledge. There are recordings of either the Britten (such as that by Lydia Mordkovitch) or the Shostakovich (certainly the Oistrakh original or that of Maxim Vengerov) that offer very strong individual competition to these performances by James Ehnes.
In fact, I have read online reviews that criticize various aspects of Ehnes’ playing. I cannot agree. I find his tone and long-line phrasing beautiful and elegant and his interpretations maybe a little short on raw angst and more focused on simple introspective beauty. The Bournemouth Symphony remains one of the world’s great ensembles led here with feeling by Kirill Karabits. I think this is certainly a must for those wanting even one great recording of both of these masterpieces and, if you already have your favorite versions of each, go get this anyway. This will not disappoint and the sound engineering by Onyx Classics is its usual clear and captivating self.