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James Ehnes - Barber / Korngold / Walton

Time Out - New Year 2007 Round-up
Young Canadian violinist James Ehnes scores a bull’s eye with a generously packed issue of late Romantic concertos by Korngold, Barber – and, unexpectedly, Walton. Superb interpretations on ONYX4016 makes this a triumph by any standards.”
Classics Today.com - David Hurwitz
These three violin concertos demonstrate the ongoing vitality and huge expressive range of the Romantic tradition in the first half of the 20th century, and as such they make a terrific program--varied, but never monotonous. Two of them, the Korngold and the Walton, are forever associated with the name of Heifetz, and as we all know that's a tough act to follow, but James Ehnes has nothing to fear from any competition.
Although he's obviously an artist very different from his illustrious predecessor, he shares with him one very important quality: the ability to take the most difficult and virtuosic passages in stride, at tempo. This is most important in the central movement of the Walton and in the outer movements of the Korngold. Especially in the latter work, it promises a welcome degree of rhythmic firmness and forward momentum, essential in a work that can easily degenerate into a sentimental wallow.
Barber's more plain-spoken brand of Romanticism offers a different set of challenges, particularly in differentiating the two opening movements and giving substance to the slender finale. Once again Ehnes both understands the nature of the job and gets it done, though without erasing memories of what arguably is Isaac Stern's best-ever concerto recording (with Bernstein, on Sony). Indeed, there's plenty of competition in all of this music, in particular from Gil Shaham's spectacularly good DG coupling of the Barber and Korngold concertos; but merely in terms of value for money this release represents a very good deal. The accompaniments also are very accomplished without being quite as rhythmically snappy in the Walton or as lyrically intense in the Barber as the best of the competition. The Korngold, on the other hand, is terrific: clear, clean, and shapely all the way through. Excellent balances and warm, natural sonics seal the bargain. A fine release from one of today's major young violinists.

"10" DE REPERTOIRE - (Xavier Rey) February 2007
A fine violinist excels himself in an outstanding trio of romantic concertos
It's an inspired coupling, as well as a generous one, to have these three high-romantic concertos together. James Ehnes gives superb performances, bringing out their full emotional thrust without vulgarity or exaggeration. His playing has always been impressive on disc, but here he excels himself in expressive range as well as the tonal beauty, with expressive rubato perfectly controlled.
The concertos date from the late-1930s and '40s, and though at such time their romanticism might have seemed outdated, the strength and memorability of the musical ideas in each amply justifies the composers' stance. In the Barber, Ehnes more than usual brings out the contrast between the first movement - improbably marked Allegro when the impression is of a slowish piece - and the Andante slow movement, strengthening the work's impact. The Korngold, drawing its striking main themes from some of the composer's film scores, is just as richly lyrical, prompting from Ehnes some ecstatic playing of the many stratospheric melodies above the stave, using a wide dynamic range with wonderfully delicate half-tones.
The Walton is just as memorable, for unlike most latter-day interpreters Ehnes has taken note of the example of the work's commissioner and dedicatee, Jascha Heifetz. Where the work is generally spread to well over half an hour, Ehnes takes exactly 30 minutes and the result is all the stronger. This is one of Walton's most richly inspired works, and Ehnes brings that out strongly, helped by the powerful playing of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under its music director Bramwell Tovey. Textures are not always as transparent as they might be, but the power of the orchestral playing in all three works adds greatly to the impact of the performances. An outstanding disc in every way.

The young James Ehnes plays with attractive tone and formidable technical command...it's all thoroughly musical and convincing..the immensely talented Ehnes and his colleagues certainly give us plenty to enjoy in this highly attractive programme
Absolutely first rate...the liner notes quote a critic describing Ehnes as 'one of the most gifted and sincerely expressive artists to have emerged in recent times.' On the evidence of this CD it's hard to disagree. He draws from his 1715 Stradivarius a stream of beautifully sensuous sounds that never tip over into sentimentality...Recommended with all possible enthusiasm.
No violinist before, as far as I'm aware, has programmed these three concertos on a single disc, but they make obvious companions. The Korngold (”more corn than gold" in the waspish judgment of the American critic Irving Kolodin)  and the Walton were written for Heifetz, and exploit that virtuoso's fabulous technique and passionate temperament. Barber's more restrained, wistful and nostalgic concerto offers a complete contrast, while sharing Korngold's and Walton's neo-Romantic idiom. The young Canadian James Ehnes proves an admirable champion of all three works, unfazed by the technical demands of Korngold and Walton, and wallowing in their rhapsodic melodies. This is gorgeous music, sumptuously performed by Ehnes and his fellow Canadians under the idiomatic Brit Bramwell Tovey. 

Each generation brings forth a set of musicians that become household names during their lives and legends after their passing. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Heifetz, Horowitz, Piatigorsky, Rubinstein and the like ruled. By the 1950s it was Van Cliburn, Philippe Entremont and Michael Rabin taking the lead. In the 1970s a tremendous wave of talent in the form of Pinchas Zuckerman, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman and Jacqueline DuPre had taken the world by storm. Another turn of the clock has occurred and names like Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, and Evgeny Kissin are everyday concert happenings. Clearly at the head of this class is the brilliant Canadian violinist James Ehnes. A boyish thirty years old, Ehnes is as down to earth as your favorite sweat shirt. Until that is, he picks up his violin. This collection of three great violin concertos from the troubled era of the Second World War, show James Ehnes at his finest.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was proclaimed by Mahler to be a genius when he was but ten years old. By the time he had reached twenty, the greatest musicians in the world were playing his music, and his opera Die Tote Stadt was the most performed opera of the 1920s. By 1934 it was too dangerous to be a Jew in a German-speaking country, and he left for the United States where he landed a lucrative contract in Hollywood composing music for films. The violin concerto, first performed by Jascha Heifetz is an amalgam of themes from his film scores. It is full of lyrical, sentimental tunes with lush romantic orchestration.
Ehnes’ playing is just the right combination of seriousness and Hollywood. The romanticism is not lost on him, but he never gets saccharine. His tone is rich and warm and in the big sweeping melodies, he sings like a good tenor. Nor does he fall short of the virtuosity needed for the rollicking final movement.
Samuel Barber’s concerto was until the era of the compact disc more or less neglected. Commissioned by a wealthy business man for his adopted son, the work had a troubled start. The commissioner thought it not difficult enough, hence the addition of the fiendish third movement, which said commissioner, thought unplayable. The concerto finally made its way into the repertoire a decade or so ago, and is one of the most played violin concertos on the circuit now.
Mr. Ehnes has some major competition in Gil Shaham’s exemplary recording with Previn from a decade or so ago, which also contains a fine rendition of the Korngold.  There are also excellent recordings by Elmar Oliveira, Hilary Hahn and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Ehnes need not worry about losing out to his colleagues though.
As with the Korngold, Ehnes plays with passion and conviction. The achingly beautiful melody of the second movement is so well performed that as a listener, you can forget to breathe for a few minutes. And the finger-busting finale comes across with the ease of a warm-up etude. Ehnes is in full command of the score.
The most welcome surprise on the program was the Walton concerto, rarely heard and for no good reason. Not as tuneful as the other two works, this is a concerto made of the tight harmonies and unique chord choices that make Walton’s music so refreshing. This concerto added fuel to my increasing enthusiasm for this composer’s work, and with a performance so full of panache as this one, the addition is welcome indeed.
Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Orchestra seem to be the perfect partners for Ehnes’ taut sense of inner rhythm and his rhapsodic way with a good melody. The orchestra produces a rich string sound and spot-on wind and brass playing. Tempi fit the music like a glove and the underlying energy that the orchestra provides for the soloist is just perfect.
Rounded out by excellent notes and a warm, vibrant recorded sound and you have a complete winner here. James Ehnes is that rare musician blessed with ample technique, and something serious and winsome to say about the music he plays. That he is becoming an international star is no surprise with playing like this. Yet for all his virtuoso abilities, he is a player of refined tastes and musical modesty. His playing serves the music, and one never gets any other impression but that he loves every minute of what he’s doing. Don’t hesitate to jump online and order a copy of this one!
Kevin Sutton
Michael Cookson has also listened to this disc:
The bold and exciting independent designer label Onyx was launched in 2005 with recordings from the renowned performers: violinist Viktoria Mullova; the Borodin String Quartet; pianist Pascal Rogé and soprano Barbara Bonney. As the recipient of review copies of several Onyx releases I have been impressed with their programme content, the consistently high standard of performance and sound quality. On this Onyx release young Canadian violinist James Ehnes is the soloist in a thrilling and generous programme of three late-Romantic violin concertos from the pens of twentieth-century composers Korngold; Barber and Walton.
From an early age the Moravian born Korngold wrote a large number of works in many genres but he is best known for his enormous success with his many scores to blockbuster epic and romantic films from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen. At the request of theatre director Max Reinhardt, Korngold visited Hollywood, USA in 1934 to successfully arrange Mendelssohn’s incidental music for his celebrated 1935 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ staring James Cagney as Bottom. Korngold a greenhorn to the world of the Silver Screen wrote, “When I came to Hollywood, I knew no more about films and their making than any other mortal who buys his ticket at the box office.” The next year Korngold signed a contract with the giant Warner Brothers Corporation to work for their famous Hollywood film factory. The dangerous situation for European Jews with the advance of National Socialism in Austria forced Korngold in 1938 to seek exile in the USA.
Korngold’s 1935 score to ‘Captain Blood’ helped launch Errol Flynn’s film career and his music to ‘Anthony Adverse’ won an Oscar in 1936 for the best film score. Other notable film scores by Korngold included: ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ (1937); ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938) that won him his second Oscar; ‘Juarez’ (1939); ‘The Sea Hawk’ (1940); ‘The Sea Wolf” (1941); ‘King’s Row’ (1941) and ‘Deception’ (1946). Korngold composed his Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 in 1945 and in the score he utilises melodies from four of his film scores: ‘Another Dawn’; ‘Juarez’; ‘Anthony Adverse’ and ‘The Prince and the Pauper’. The Violin Concerto was premiered in 1947 by Jascha Heifetz but it has not been taken seriously in some quarters. Music critic Irving Kolodin viewed the score as “More corn than gold,” and the influential music author Mark Morris has written, “…the sickly sweet Violin Concerto…”.         
In the opening movement moderato nobile I was immediately struck by James Ehnes’s gloriously warm and golden timbre in Korngold’s passionate outpouring. The sound world of Prokofiev’s influential second Violin Concerto (1935) and the Walton Violin Concerto are never far away and Ehnes plays virtually continuously throughout the score. The central movement Romance has an unrelenting yearning of an almost tear-jerking quality that is marvellously caught by the authoritative Ehnes. Rigorously, brisk and agitated playing from Ehnes in the allegro assai vivace: finale where rhythm and melody are blended almost coarsely by Korngold. Ehnes builds up at 5:36 towards the blockbuster coda that becomes a frenzied race to the finishing line. The brass fanfares at 6:36-6:39 and 6:48-6:55 are startlingly effective.                
I am delighted with this performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto by James Ehnes on Onyx and I will certainly not be actively searching for an alternative version in a hurry. 
Barber’s Violin Concerto was written between 1939–40 and has become a greatly loved score both in the recording studio and the concert hall, although, its development was at times a controversial one. The work was conceived as a commission from the successful Philadelphia industrialist and philanthropist Samuel Fels who was the manufacturer of Fels Naptha a popular household soap and a board member at the Curtis Institute. Fels required the score for his adopted son and heir the violinist Iso Briselli. Barber took his advance and began composing the Violin Concerto in the summer of 1939 in Switzerland. In that autumn Barber sent the first two movements to Briselli who according to the Briselli family responded with, “enthusiasm and admiration” which is contrary to published reports that Briselli had “complained that the music was too simple and not brilliant enough for a concerto.” Barber continued composing the third and final movement in Paris before quickly leaving the troubles in Europe to sail to the relative safety of the USA. Barber later submitted the final movement to the soloist in the summer of 1940 who apparently was not satisfied with its suitability to the first two movements. It has often been inferred that Barber, to pay back Iso Briselli for implying that the score was too easy, deliberately made the final movement fiendishly difficult. Iso Briselli it seems suggested that Barber make some revisions to the final movement which Barber declined to make. My understanding is that the Briselli family refute the contention that Barber’s commission was in jeopardy and that Iso Briselli ever said that the movement was too difficult or unplayable. Albert Spalding was secured as soloist to give the official premiere performance of the completed score in February 1941. I believe that Iso Briselli did go on to play the score privately.
As with the Korngold Violin Concerto I was immediately aware of the influence of Prokofiev’s second Violin Concerto (1935) although a check of the composition dates seems to reveal that Barber would not have known Walton’s Violin Concerto. In the opening movement allegro Ehnes demonstrates that he is at one with Barber’s eloquently Romantic melodies and high drama. The wonderful lilting melody of the extended oboe solo heralds the highly passionate character of the andante movement. From his entrance at 2:31 Ehnes is seductive in Barber’s searing and ravishing love music.  This is electrifyingly confident playing from Ehnes that is bursting with life in this tour de force closing movement marked presto in moto perpetuo.                       
I was pleased to hear this excellent version of the Barber Violin Concerto from James Ehnes on Onyx.
The final work on this Onyx release is the increasingly popular Walton Violin Concerto a score so infused with Mediterranean warmth and passion. Walton’s reputation steadily increased with a series of successful scores; notably Façade (1922-23); the Viola Concerto (1929); Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) and his Symphony No. 1 (1935). Regarded as a composer who was different to those of the traditional English pastoral school Walton wrote in a more contemporary and cosmopolitan style to that of his fellow countryman. He was influenced by composers such as Stravinsky and Sibelius, and by a passion for American jazz.
Walton wrote three string concertos that soloists have kept pretty much on the fringes of their performance repertoire. However, the concertos have received acclaim from music critics and it seems that audiences are gradually gaining a fondness for the scores; especially the Violin Concerto if the amount of recordings is anything to go by. It was Jascha Heifetz who in 1936 commissioned Walton to compose a Violin Concerto. Owing to work in progress on his film scores and other promised projects Walton was only able to undertake work on the score two years later between 1938-39. The Violin Concerto was said to have been written under the inspiration of his older married lover and muse the wealthy English Viscountess Alice Wimborne at their idyllically located villa that overlooked the Mediterranean. In Tony Palmer’s 1981 documentary film profile of Sir William Walton ‘At the Haunted End of the Day’ Walton talks about his Violin Concerto, “Most of it was written at Ravello, near Amalfi (Italy), at the Villa Cimbrone where I spent a lot of time with a lady I loved very dearly, Alice Wimborne…Very intelligent, very kind…We had a little room outside the main gate. Alice was very good at making me work and would get very cross if I mucked about.” The score was premiered in December 1939 at the Severance Hall in Cleveland, USA by Jascha Heifetz with the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski. Walton subsequently made substantial revisions to the score in 1943.

In Walton’s Violin Concerto one immediately senses that Ehnes’s playing is deeply felt and conveys sultry Mediterranean warmth. The robust energy provided by Ehnes in the opening movement andante tranquillo from 3:52 surpasses any of my rival versions in a way that left me exhausted by the experience. The orchestral support from Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is simply remarkable. I loved Ehnes’s flowing and lyrical playing in the hauntingly beautiful slow movement.  In the final movement vivace the balance of Ehnes with the Orchestra seems perfectly judged. Especially impressive is how Ehnes provides an almost gypsy-like feel to the music at 2:24-2:49 in a way that I had not previously encountered. In the swifter sections Ehnes’s jagged rhythmic bite is spirited and rugged. From points 4:14-5:47 and 7:29-11:40 Ehnes’s beautiful and tender playing is a match for Menuhin on EMI Classics and Kennedy on EMI. At 6:10-7:19 Ehnes cranks-up the volume effortlessly and boldly, and at 11:49-12:48 he paces a tremendously full-bodied conclusion to the score.           
The Walton Violin Concerto seems to have been especially well served in the recording studio over the years and this Onyx account from James Ehnes can sit comfortably with the finest recordings. 
This disc from James Ehnes has the advantage of remarkable support from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey. The Onyx engineers have provided a warm and clearly detailed sound quality and the booklet notes from Keith Horner are written to a high standard. I had to laugh when Keith Horner was discussing the commission of the Barber Violin Concerto by Samuel Fels the manufacturer of Fels Naptha household soap; he writes that Barber, “must have wished he could have washed his hands of the circumstances of the commission.”   
My nominations for 2006 ‘Records of the Year’ have already been made otherwise this release would have been a certainty for inclusion. This generous Onyx recording from James Ehnes of three late-Romantic violin concertos is superbly played and recorded, and deserves the highest possible praise. 
MUSIC OMH.COM - Dave Paxton 24.11.06
This is a must-have disc from the renowned Canadian violinist James Ehnes.
The violin concertos of Barber and Korngold have been partnered on record before, and Ehnes knows full well what a successful pairing they are.
He then adds William Walton's lesser-known concerto to complete a trilogy of works composed in the 1930s and 40s.
The first and second are among the most romantic things composed for violin in the last century and Walton's work, while more stylistically ambiguous, has a solid case made for it with Ehnes's flowing, colourful reading. The opening sognando theme soars effortlessly, with precise portamento and a lyrical legato that carries throughout the violin's range. Ehnes plays the “Ex Marsick” Stradivarius of 1715, which has a fantastically thick, syrupy resonance in its lower middle region and only a slight insecurity up above.
Ehnes's playing is mellifluous and flowing: exactly what is needed for these works. Korngold's concerto is perhaps superficial in the sense that it is created of ideas from the composer's film compositions, none of which are developed particularly ingeniously. The variations on a theme from Anthony Adverse (1936) in movement three are not varied at all – one senses that sensuousness of sound is what is important – but then again, it is hard not to fall in love with such gloriously melodic writing.
Immediately in the Moderato nobile, Ehnes's phrasing stands out. The opening two octave surge is flowing and confident; a slight hesitation on the following descent down the scale is near perfect. Long melodic lines are unfurled with exquisite delicacy – the violin drifts up to its highest regions with no sign of strain. In the Romance, Ehnes sensibly keeps himself in check, realising just how sentimental this music can become, and only in the most surging passages does the bow caress the string in true Romantic fashion. The movement is all the more beautiful for it.
Ehnes's view of the Barber concerto is similarly intelligent – beauty, lyricism and flowing melodies there may be, but phrases are held back; vibrato adds deliberate uncertainty when Romanticism threatens to become overstated. And the moto perpetuo final movement manages to seem both an emotional release and a blast of fury, threatening to combust at any moment. Ehnes may bow legato lines well, but he is most certainly not found wanting when it comes to Presto passages. One need only listen to the final scurrying ideas to realise how secure the man's technique is.
Walton's work provides ample contrast with its predecessors, and what it lacks in traditional Romanticism it finds in the plethora of ideas that make up its three movements. Ehnes relishes each one, finding naturalistic rhythms in the work, adding textural colour to his playing and riding the orchestra with complete freedom. Vibrato harms a couple of top notes, but this hardly matters.
All is underscored by the thoughtful playing of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, who seem to do Romantic music very well indeed. Perhaps the violins are not as lush as they might be, but conductor Bramwell Tovey finds many colours and shadings in the orchestral writing and never allows his forces to seem merely an accompanist. All in all, highly recommended.
CD OF THE WEEK "This is a must-have disc" (Geoffrey Norris)
The exceptionally gifted Canadian violinist James Ehnes, who is playing Mendelssohn's early, seldom heard D minor Concerto in Bournemouth and Exeter this coming week, has produced this terrific new CD of three other concertos that are slightly off the beaten track but share the common characteristic of being irresistible.
James Ehnes

All three were composed during the late 1930s or early '40s and are quintessentially lyrical, a quality that Ehnes's impeccable style conveys with mellifluous beauty – never succumbing to the temptation to go over the top in, for example, the succulent concerto that Korngold crafted from his film scores, but preserving a winning sense of musical perspective and sensibility.

All three composers tested a soloist's virtuosity, particularly Samuel Barber in the "presto in moto perpetuo" that forms the short but fiendish finale to his concerto; nor was Walton any slouch in the demands he made in the "presto capriccioso alla napolitana" at the centre of the concerto that he wrote on the Amalfi coast.

Mediterranean warmth as well as caprice radiates from Ehnes's performance, and in the other two concertos he gets right to the heart of the music's temperament, nostalgic but with spirited uplift as well. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra does him proud in establishing vibrant, complementary support. This is a must-have disc.

Philadelphia Enquirer, 22 October - David Patrick Stearns
What a great collection of concertos. Each of the three is the sole violin concerto of the composer; all were written about the same time, with similarly thick sonorities, but approached from vastly different cultures - from Korngold's Hollywood-cum-Vienna urbanity to Barber's American emotional earnestness to Walton's gritty British dissonances.

The performances show violinist Ehnes in peak form, full of star quality with his silky tone and almost offhanded ease with the technical fireworks (many of which were written for Jascha Heifetz). Conductor Bramwell Tovey and his Vancouver group stick with Ehnes all the way; even the New York Philharmonic didn't give him such a tight accompaniment in the Walton concerto last season.
Toronto Star, 23 November 2006
Ehnes's playing is as smooth as silk.
Dallas Morning News, 28 October 2006
Mr. Ehnes lacks nothing for clean-cut virtuosity, and you'll not hear Barber's perpetual-motion finale tossed off with cooler brilliance. A really attractive combination of concertos, well played and naturally recorded.
Sound Advice, 14 October 2006
Ehnes is very convincing with this approach. He's virtuosic but not flashy. His sweet, warm tone wins you over and enhances the more purely musical aspects of this music, and especially in the gorgeous slow movement of the Korngold. Intonation and tuning are once again, near perfect, as are his phrasing and overall musicianship.
Christoph Huss – Le Devoir
James Ehnes is never less than perfect when it comes to the beauty and phrasing of the sound. He does total justice to the long, almost vocal, lines in the Barber and Korngold, and masters like a tightrope-walker the challenges in Walton and the finale of the Barber. The playing of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is astonishing, with a lively and discerning accompaniment led by Bramwell Tovey.”
Res Musica 

“With his generous sound, warmly and sensually magnified by his superb Stradivarius: the ‘Ex-Marsick 1715’, the violinist James Ehnes was meant to record these scores. The competition is stiff: Gil Shaham in the Korngold and Barber (DGG), Joshua Bell in the Barber and Walton (Decca), not forgetting the historic versions by Isaac Stern (Barber) and Jascha Heifetz (Walton and Korngold), but Ehnes knows how to find the perfect balance without falling into sentimental narcissism. He is helped by a strong and exacting Vancouver Orchestra under the attentive direction of Bramwell Tovey.

An excellent recording quality is another argument in favour of this unique recording.”