ELGAR Violin Concerto; Serenade for Strings – Ehnes
Not since Nigel Kennedy’s 1997 remake with Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO (EMI, 1/98) have I heard an account of the Elgar as thrillingly combustible, imaginative and involving as this. It was set down in June in conjunction with a concert performance at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and the first thing to say is that James Ehnes brings to this great concerto a rapt identification, tingling temperament and glowing ardour which completely eluded Hilary Hahn on her curiously aloof rendering with Sir Colin Davis (DG, 11/04). Not only is Ehnes’s technical address impeccable and intonation miraculously true, his contribution is remarkable for its intrepid emotional scope, athletic agility and (perhaps above all) jaw-dropping delicacy (nowhere more heart-tuggingly potent than in the finale’s accompanied cadenza).
Ehnes is also fortunate in enjoying the support of Sir Andrew Davis, a proven Elgarian whose wonderfully perceptive conducting has authoritative sweep, elasticity and fiery passion to spare (witness the memorably eruptive orchestral tutti from fig 23 or 9'27" in the first movement) as well as a very special understanding of those moments of aching intimacy in which this of all scores abounds: what a ravishing backcloth he provides for the ineffable appearance of the “Windflower” theme at fig 16 or 6'29" in the same movement; and how affecting are the strings’ songful sighs from fig 47 or 1'48" in the ensuing Andante. One or two unruly timpani thwacks aside, the Philharmonia’s response exhibits polish, grace and dedication.
Some might take issue with the sound which, I concede, is a little shrouded and lacking something in alluring bloom (the actual balance is otherwise very much as you would hear from a seat in the stalls). No matter, this remains a performance of conspicuous pedigree and insight guaranteed to make you fall in love all over again with this sublime music and which can only boost Ehnes’s standing as one of the most gifted and charismatic fiddlers around. Davis’s utterly unforced and ravishingly moving account of the entrancing Serenade makes a cherishable pendant.