MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64; Octet in E-flat, Op. 20 – James Ehnes, violin / Erin Keefe, Andrew Wan, and Augustin Hadelich, violins (Octet) / Cynthia Phelps and Richard O’Neill violas (Octet) / Robert deMaine and Edward Arron, cellos (Octet) / Philharmonia Orchestra / Vladimir Ashkenazy – Onyx 4060 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 57:31 ****1/2:
This foray into the heart of the violin repertoire should give cheer to Canadian violinist James Ehnes’s admirers, of which I count myself one. I was immediately struck by his performances of the Bruch concerti, characterized by a ready fluency and a no-nonsense approach without undue point-making (which I saw and heard in abundance in a recent performance by the gifted Sarah Chang with the Atlanta Symphony). Ehnes brings the same qualities to his reading of the Mendelssohn Concerto. Of course the playing of the Julliard-trained violinist is both beautiful and immaculate as well.
Whether you’re looking for a more dry-eyed approach to this concerto that often comes in for sentimental—if not downright schmaltzy—treatment is the main issue, of course. Everyone will have his or her own favorite recording of this perenniel favorite; I grew up with the Stern/Ormandy recording, and that’s what I hear in my mind’s ear when I reflect on the work. With a range of choices from Heifitz, Milstein, and Perlman right up to youngsters Daniel Hope and Hillary Hahn, it’s an understatement to say this work is well represented on disc. However, I find that even in a prodigally crowded field Ehnes’s excellent work stands out and is thoroughly recommendable.
But what makes this disc even more desirable is the pairing, one of the best-ever performances of Mendelssohn’s first masterwork, the Octet of his sixteenth year. For élan and sheer joie-de-vivre, this performance will take some beating, yet the surprisingly profound slow movement (not so surprising for the teenage Mendelssohn, I suppose) is played with equally deep feeling by all hands, members of the obviously first-rate Seattle Chamber Music Society.
Unfortunately, I haven’t heard the recording by Daniel Hope on DG, which comes into direct competition with Ehnes and friends. Hope has gotten excellent notices, and I’d expect the usually lithe playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe would supply a fine backup to his performance. The Philharmonia under Ashkenazy provides more than acceptable accompaniment to Ehnes, but the combination of a big string body and a slightly bottom-heavy recording keeps it from being quite special. Still, for Ehnes’s playing in the Concerto and for that great Octet performance, the current disc is a definite keeper.