KHACHATURIAN: Violin Concerto in D Minor; SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108; String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110 – James Ehnes, violin/ Melbourne Sym. Orch./ Mark Wigglesworth/ Ehnes Quartet – Onyx 4121, 69:36 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (3/10/14) ****:
The ever-ambitious James Ehnes (b. 1976) continues his explorations of mainstream and chamber music repertory with these performances (rec. 14-16 November 2013) of Khachaturian and Shostakovich, playing his 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius of luxuriantly sweet tone. The bravura, “oriental” Concerto in D Minor (1940) by Khachaturian remains, first and last, a brilliant display vehicle for the late David Oistrakh, although other fine instrumentalists – like Mischa Elman – have made it a personal tour de force. The potent energy of the first movement has a complementary, sensuous urgency in the second espessivo theme, especially as Ehnes can match colors against the French horn. Ehnes employs the composer’s original, long cadenza that Oistrakh replaced – with Khachaturian’s approval – by a more concise concoction of his own. Ehnes quite holds us spellbound in his rendition of the demanding first version, easily blending Bach counterpoint with a series of bariolage and double-stopped filigree. The Melbourne brass and winds under Wigglesworth add their own buoyant flavors to a heady brew of repeated motives that by their accumulated tapestries convince us that we have traveled by flying carpet.
The heart of this ethnic, Armenian love-song and fertility dance appears in the Andante sostenuto, whose gorgeous melody invokes in rondo form the same languor we experience in the Spartacus Adagio. The music invokes, like Lumir in the Smetana cycle Ma Vlast, the bardic tradition of the Armenian ashug, the seer who improvises a familial history in song. The middle section becomes militant and heavy in its proud nostalgia, then moves through the Melbourne brass into a quiet close that precedes the stormy Allegro vivace finale. With machine-gun velocity, the last movement hurtles us into a resounding dervish dance in which Ehnes will demonstrate athletically dexterous rhythmic and digital legerdemain, the quick, dragonfly colors of the winds and strings’ whisking by in streaming veils. The secondary theme repeats the sensuous, slithery erotics of the first movement, with Ehnes’ beguiling transparencies a constant source of seductive power, often evinced moto-perpetuo. The energized romp never suffers a lapse in tension or harmonized colors, and the coda rounds off an eminently convincing testament to a potent musical imagination.
The sudden transition to the highly personal String Quartet No. 7 of Dmitri Shostakovich (1960), written as an elegy for the composer’s first wife, Nina Vasilievna Varzar (d. 1954), quite jars our sensibilities. The music seems cut from one lugubrious cloth, the first violin’s playing a melodic fragment while the other strings punctuate a three-note figure. At the Lento marking, the music assumes an eerie, dirge-like spaciousness, with low long notes in the cello (Robert deMaine). Viola (Richard O’Neill) and second violin (Amy Schwartz Moretti) engage in some quietly disturbing colloquy. Suddenly, heated in F-sharp Minor, the music shrieks in dotted rhythm polyphony: Allegro – Allegretto – [Adagio] – and in a moment of nostalgia, the fugue gives way to a mordant waltz. The Ehnes Quartet thins its textures until the three-note figure from movement one appears, this time supported by the cello’s pizzicato. The music lands on an F-sharp Major cadence, which is the only consolation left after an inconsolable loss.
In Dresden, 1960, Shostakovich wrote his most personal quartet, that in C Minor, Op. 110 “To the Victims of Fascism and War,” which obviously includes himself, since his motto, D, E-flat, C, B as initials of his name, meant as a possible “requiem” if he returned to Soviet Russia. Like the Seventh Quartet, the movements proceed without a pause. The opening Lento is polyphonic and makes passing allusions to the composer’s own First and Fifth Symphonies. The ensuing Allegro molto breaks the funereal mood with a fierce danse macabre that has Ehnes and Moretti in octaves against a stridently nervous bass that rekindles memories of the Piano Trio No. 2. More personal allusions follow, Allegretto, in the form of a balletic waltz riddled with anagrams of D-S-C-H exacted from the Cello Concerto No. 1. Violin and viola urge the music forward until Ehnes has a shrill G string sound whose hollow chill becomes interrupted by sforzati chords. Militantly threatening, the first Largo takes a gloomy melody from Shostakovich’s ever-controversial Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. The specter of death remains, entering a second Largo whose materials derive from the opening movement, closing the circle in the form of a tragic ourobouros. Rudolf Barshai orchestrated the work, but the Ehnes Quartet maintains its haunted dignity without emotional excess or exaggeration.