A new bottle of old wine – the Vivaldi Seasons – depends on your taste and the Ehnes charisma.
VIVALDI: The Seasons, Op. 8; TARTINI: Violin Sonata in g “The Devil’s Trill”(arr. Kreisler); LECLAIR: Violin Sonata in D Major, Op. 9, No. 3 – James Ehnes, v./ Sydney Sym. Orch./ Andrew Armstrong, p. – Onyx 4134, 71:13 (10/9/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The world may little note nor long remember yet another recording of Vivaldi’s The Seasons (rec. 18-19 May 2014) by Canadian virtuoso James Ehnes (b. 1976), but we now add this tastefully conservative reading to a rather imposing list of alternatives. Playing his 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius, Ehnes leads the Sydney Symphony over this well traversed, natural landscape. Of more note, however, the two Baroque sonatas that accompany the suite of concertos deserve our plaudits.
Ehnes begins with Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata in g minor (c. 1740), wherein Kreisler added much of the figured bass line and the exemplary cadenza passage in the last movement. Ehnes and his pianist Armstrong make a plastic and persuasive rendition for us, warm and seamlessly fluent. The sheer succession of double-stopped passages and florid trills alone warrants our admiration for the Ehnes technique. Jean-Marie Leclair’s D Major Sonata – long a favorite of masters such as Oistrakh and Milstein – proceeds with equally charming ambiance, finding its culmination in the fourth movement Presto “Tambourin.” The second movement Allegro enjoys a high gloss, easy in its alternately galloping and lulling figures. The affecting Sarabande casts an other-worldly glow, a Spanish mantilla of especial poise. The last movement dances and swirls with restrained happy energy.
Ehnes approaches The Seasonswith affectionate lyricism, particularly in the slow movements, which enjoy a tender articulation of phrase. Ehnes can certainly apply his after-burners, as in the presto sections of Summer’s Allegro molto. The tempos never become manic for their own sake, or sluggish to the point of mannerism. The Presto finale explodes, multi-colored and passionate, with those fierce summer squalls. The F Major Concerto expresses a luxuriant sense of Nature’s harvest, including a rustic dance of thanksgiving. The rapid string crossing and registration shifts prove mother’s milk to Ehnes, and the string ensemble and continuo respond immediately to his every dynamic. The Adagio molto, the orchestral tissue sustained over a pedal point, shimmers luminously. The poised march that constitutes the final Allegro basks in ceremonial figures and stretti that resound with good humor.
My favorite, “Winter,” remains that with Isaac Stern and the Jerusalem Center Chamber Orchestra on Sony (35122), never transferred to CD. That performance projected a genuine angst of the season. The Ehnes version seems comparatively tame and conservative, more in line with my old familiar realizations by Fasano, Brusilow and Corigliano. Virtuosic and eminently rife with brio, the performance bears the signature Ehnes lyricism and vitality, typical of a performance that respects the music at all times. Whether these virtues demand another investment depends on your taste and the Ehnes marketing charisma.