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James Ehnes - Homage [CD/DVD]

Classic FM Magazine - 3/09 DVD of the Month *****
BBC Music Magazine - 3/09 Chamber Choice of the Month *****
Another triumphant release for James Ehnes...
Beautifully photographed, consummately played and beguilingly engineered this is a must for all music-lovers
Gramophone DVD of the Month - February 2009
Music Web International - 11.2.09
This entertaining violin compendium is the latest addition to Canadian-violinist James Ehnes’ recording odyssey for Onyx. It focuses on the evolution of the violin and viola from an educational and artistic perspective.
Homage is a CD+DVD set comprising nearly three hours of recorded material. It has a single mission: to highlight, up-close and intimate, the brilliance in craftsmanship and acoustic beauty of a dozen vintage violins and violas.
To this day, violin-making remains part of a proud four-hundred year long tradition that originated in the Northern regions of Italy. Ehnes takes us on a journey from the viola of Gasparo Bertolotti dating back as early as the 1560s to the beautifully crafted violins of Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri from the early decades of 1700. They come from a priceless collection belonging to American philanthropist David Fulton and his wife Ann Fulton.
When a string instrument is claimed to be ‘original’ - in all its parts - it refers to the instrument’s top, its back, its side, as well as its scroll. To be able to experience any of these fine instruments today is the dream of any violin/viola aficionado. To be able to hear all twelve is an exceptional privilege.
Currently nominated for the 2009 Juno Award, Homage is a treasure trove of beautiful music written by skilled composers and violinists from the past century. It is a rare collection commendable not only from the viewpoint of these vintage instruments, but also offering music performed compellingly by James Ehnes, one of Canada’s most formidable violin talents - a young musician with an old soul.
A question that continues to stimulate the curiosity of many great minds is: "Why did the art of making string instruments reach its peak during this particular period in history, spanning the decades between the late 17th to 18th centuries and just as the Renaissance was stirring?” Ehnes proposes a compelling hypothesis in the liner notes, suggesting that "… making string instruments is not just a craft, but also an art-form, where it inspired … [the creation of] … works of unequalled greatness.” Just as music has continued to develop throughout the ages, so have the instruments by which is it is expressed. Today’s flutes, for instance, bear little familiarity to the flutes played by the Greeks of ancient times. Baroque Masters like Bach, Handel and Scarlatti would have been overwhelmed by the expressive and mechanical capacity of today’s concert pianos. Of all the musical instrument families, the string instruments remain exceptional. The most celebrated violins, violas and cellos are those that were made hundreds of years ago. As Ehnes says, "There is simply no other profession where the best tool for the job is hundreds of years old.”
The disc opens with a dazzling eighteen tracks spotlighting each of the violins in the Fulton Collection. Firstly we have a performance of Bazzini’s La Ronde des Lutins performed on Ehnes’ very own ‘Marsick’ Stradivarius from 1715. This he holds under extended loan from the Fultons. It then continues with a scintillating trip through six movements from de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, arranged by Polish violin virtuoso Paul Kochanski. These are played using six unique Guarneri and Stradivari violins. In each of these Spanish songs one readily appreciates the vintage qualities that define each instrument: a rare combination of rich tonal beauty, vivid colour range and clarity of sound. Ehnes chooses a different bow for each Fulton instrument. As Ehnes has explained in interview: "it is not uncommon to find an instrument with one or even two of these traits [mentioned above] in abundance, but to find all these elements in the same instrument is rare.” Interspersed one finds Ehnes revelling in Elgar’s La Capricieuse and Salut d’amour, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habañera, Sibelius’s Mazurka, and Tchaikovsky’s inevitable Melody - some very sensitive playing here using the Guarneri ‘del Gesù,’ 1752 ‘Lord Wilton’. Perhaps the most interesting of this group are those violin transcriptions that bring each of the instruments to their limits, as heard in Scott-Kreisler’s Lotus Land, Dinicu-Heifetz’s Hora Staccato, Wieniawski-Kreisler’s Étude-Caprice, Moszowski-Sarasate’s Guitarre, and de-Falla-Kreisler’s Danse Espagnole. There is also Kreisler’s Chansons Louis XIII and Pavane, which helps to impart a nice sense of balance.
We also hear the Fulton’s violas, one from each of Gasparo da Salò, Andrea Guarneri and Giuseppe Guadagnini. These span three succeeding centuries: Vaughan Williams’ Greensleeves, Benjamin-Primrose’s Jamaican Rumba and David-Vieuxtemps’ La Nuit. These are played with panache by Ehnes, ably accompanied by pianist Eduard Laurel. The best is saved for last. A fun but challenging exercise for those with trained ears is to compare tracks from Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. Ehnes takes each of the individual violins and violas and using the same excerpt independently brings out tonal character, acoustic range and clarity in projection. Each instruments brings its own charm and luxurious character to the excerpt. They also make for a rousing close to the recital. The engineering gives the players some welcome breathing room, permitting Ehnes' lithe tone, with its seductive, fast vibrato, to emerge vividly while observing a good balance with the piano.
A DVD with over 2 hours "behind the scene” and interview material accompanies this fine compendium. Ehnes describes one of his missions as an artist is to "make fabulous music … the ‘set-up’ of a violin is everything. Any violin is capable of sounding really, really bad, so you spend your whole performing life trying to make a violin sound great or beautiful. And when you’ve got it right, the instrument speaks in a certain way. It is a magical thing … a thunderclap.” Homage is a prize-winning document that is indispensable for any serious collector interested in one of humankind’s most intimate instruments.

Observer (UK) 25.1.08
American musician David Fulton has one of the world's finest collections of priceless Stradivari and Guarneri violins and violas. A dozen of them are put through their paces by James Ehnes on this compelling disc which is accompanied by a 100-minute DVD. Ehnes has selected pieces from across the repertoire to show off the unique beauty of each instrument, and includes fascinating comparison tracks, playing a single phrase from Bruch's Scottish Fantasy on nine violins and another from Berlioz's Harold in Italy on three violas. The difference in tonal colour is extraordinary.
Violinist.com - Laurie Niles Editor 2008 Pick of the Year
Forget the Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar, you'd far prefer to gaze at violin pin-ups -- breathtaking specimens of luthierie, oh, those luscious curves! In that case, this is the gift for you: Grammy award-winning violinist James Ehnes has had his way with 12 of the most prized violins and violas in the world – instruments from the Fulton Collection – and in this CD/DVD, he lets you watch. And listen. And view "spectacular close-ups of the instruments." Get the physical CD/DVD in its gorgeous little case, which folds out once to reveal little pictures of every single instrument, front and back; then it folds out again to reveal a little black book in which James has concisely described each Strad, del Gesu, Guarneri, Bertolotti and Guadagnini that he played, and why he chose special repertoire he played on each one.
New Zealand Herald 13 December 2008 - William Hart
...the Canadian violinist's new album, Homage, couldn't be more welcome. Ehnes takes us to encore heaven, stringing them out with endless flair, from Hora Staccato to Salut d'Amour, played on a succession of priceless violins and violas from the Fulton Collection. He adores both the music and the instruments and you can see this on the accompanying DVD, when he dashes off Elgar's La Capricieuse on a 1698 violin and tugs at the heartstrings with Vaughan Williams' Greensleeves on a mellow 1590 viola.
"A masterpiece is born" 25.10.2008 Toronto Star -John Terauds
To say that this is one of the most amazing recordings of violin music ever made doesn't even begin to do justice to what James Ehnes has accomplished here. He tosses this collection of showpieces off so smoothly that it's easy to underestimate the feats of technique and control involved to make the music so polished.
Of the 21 regular tracks on the CD, 18 belong to violins, featuring such 19th- and early 20th-century chestnuts as Manuel de Falla's Suite populaire espagnole and Maurice Ravel's Piece en forme de Habanera. There are several arrangements of encore pieces by violin legends Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz and even a nod to Edwardian melodrama in Edward Elgar's once-ubiquitous Salut d'amour.

The viola highlight is Ralph Vaughan William's evergreen Fantasia on Greensleeves. Long-time Ehnes collaborator Eduard Laurel sparkles at the piano in the accompaniments.
For listeners with keen ears and sophisticated audio equipment, the producers have included nine comparison tracks for the violins using excerpts from the Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch.
For the three violas, it's the lovely solo passages from Harold in Italy by Hector Berlioz.
Then there is the DVD, which reprises the full CD program with video taken in the recording studio. Ehnes is not a physically demonstrative player, and his feet never move from the two Xs marked for him on the studio floor, so you're not going to gain much from watching the music. But the historical commentary and the interviews are fascinating.
The booklet also includes copious commentary and notes compiled by Ehnes.
The Ottawa Citizen - Richard Todd - 22.11.08 and Pick of 2008
Imagine playing nine of the very best violins and three violas of the same quality. That's all most string players can do, imagine. But not James Ehnes: He got the run of David Fulton's collection to make this fascinating CD and its accompanying DVD.
Violinist James Ehnes was able to get his hands on 12 of the finest string instruments ever created to make his fascinating Homage CD.
Fulton is a musician himself, though his professional life before retirement was mainly in the software industry. He co-founded Fox Software, and when his company was sold to Microsoft he became an executive in that company.
All but two of the dozen instruments here are Stradivaris or Guarneris. One of the exceptions, a 1560 viola by Gasparo Bertolotti, is the oldest instrument used in this collection by more than 100 years. It is bigger than the modern viola and has a more commanding sound. The newest one, made in 1793, two years after Mozart's death, is also a viola, this one by Giuseppe Guadagnini.
The repertoire Ehnes chose to demonstrate the instruments is music that allows him to show off the their virtuosic potential, not to mention his own.
He does offer direct comparisons with short, unaccompanied excerpts from Bruch's Scottish Fantasy and Berlioz's Harold in Italy. Do any of the dozen stand clearly above the others? Not really, though this listener is particularly fond of the 1715 "Baron Knoop" and 1719 "Duke of Alba" Stradivaris. The 1715 "Marsik" Strad that Ehnes usually plays is no slouch either.
The DVD is useful for its demonstrations and interviews; yet the most memorable moments are the shots of all of the instruments lined up on a display stand. The array is almost as beautiful to see as the instruments are to hear.
Classicstoday.com  - Christophe Huss 1.12.08
10 Performance 10 Sound
Il est de retour, le violiste hallucinant des premiers disques, qui s'était un peu embourgeoisé. James Ehnes, quand il joue comme cela est tout simplement un géant. Il nous agrippe dès la Ronde des lutins de Bazzini (plage 1) et nous gagne à sa cause par l'intensité de sa sonorité dans la Suite populaire espagnole de Manuel de Falla, transcrite par Kochanski. Sa manière de jouer Nana (plage 3), comme sur un souffle, est tout simplement bouleversante.
En fait, le disque a pour but d'illustrer divers violons d'une collection parmi les plus riches au monde, la collection Fulton: six Stradivarius, deux Guarneri Del Gesù, un Pietro Guarneri, ainsi que trois altos. La juxtaposition d'instruments de haut calibre avait déjà été illustrée dans un disque Tacet. On avait alors remarqué que l'exercice n'avait sans doute un caractère édifiant que pour les spécialistes.
Ehnes déroule donc un parcours de petites pièces de virtuosité en variant ses "partenaires", avant de faire sonner les neuf violons dans un même extrait (en solo) de la Fantaise écossaise de Bruch et les trois altos dans un extrait de Harold en Italie de Berlioz. C'est dans ce dernier exercice que la différence est la plus notable, les trois instruments étant distants d'un siècle chacun. On admirera la couleur du Andrea Guarneri et la puissance du Guadagnini.
Pour les violons, on est étonné du son qu'Ehnes parvient à tirer de "belles endormies", dont, par exemple, le Stradivarius "La Pucelle" qui n'a jamais été enregistré. La limite de "l'exercice" étant évidemment que s'il la jouait pendant six mois, cette vierge enfin efflorée sonnerait différemment. Par ailleurs, il faut signaler que celui qui manie l'instrument n'est absolument pas "neutre" par rapport à celui-ci. Si vous trouvez que tel Stradivarius sonne mieux que tel autre avec James Ehnes, la sensation pourrait être totalement opposée avec Julia Fischer ou Gil Shaham.
Plutôt que de considérer cet exercice comme l'objet même du disque, je préfère donc l'aborder comme un complément d'autant plus instructif que James Ehnes lui-même raconte dans un parfait livret (bilingue français-anglais) l'histoire de chaque instrument. Pour illustrer encore plus avant l'élaboration de ce projet, un DVD de plus d'une heure et demie joint l'image à la parole et à la musique.
Pour ce qui m'intéresse le plus, les 65 minutes de programme de miniatures – des grands classiques genre (outre ceux mentionnés) Hora Staccato de Dinicu, Pièce en forme de Habanera de Ravel, Salut d'amour et La capricieuse d'Elgar, Etude-Caprice de Wieniawski –, le parcours est tout simplement stupéfiant; l'un des plus beaux récitals du genre depuis le Salut d'amour de Shaham il y a dix ans chez DG.
Totalement incontournable si vous vous intéressez au violon (et à l'alto).

Metro - Warwick Thompson 6/3/2009
On his disc Homage (Onyx), award-winning Canadia violinist James Ehnes is given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to record a private collection of rare violins and violas, the majority of them by Stradivari. His repertoire choices for each instrument are rewarding - including short works by Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Ravel - but it's the 'compare and constrast' section, in which he plays an identical piece on all the fiddles, that is most memorable and shows off the remarkable individuality of the instruments. A great recital and a fascinating lesson in musical history.