New Classical Tracks - Tchaikovsky, Played with Commitment

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
January 18, 2012
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St. Paul, Minn. — James Ehnes is a world-class violinist who also has another passion. "I've got a '71 Corvette convertible that I've sort of taken to a billion pieces and put back together again. That was a lot of fun. And I have a '79 Ferrari 308, which is my other baby, which is also a lot of fun. You know I grew up watching 'Magnum P.I.,' and it was my dream to always have that car. So I got a great deal and now I have it. But I don't have the moustache like Magnum."

Ehnes sees an analogy between his cars and his violin. No matter how you maintain them, they're always in a state of breaking down or breaking in. When James Ehnes plays a challenging work like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, he says his 1715 Stradivarius takes a beating. Strings may break, and bow hairs will fly, "Every time I play it I've contemplated putting in my contract a set of new strings and bow re-hair," he chuckles, "because it's a pretty physical piece. By the end of the week the instrument is a little worn out!"

The Tchaikovsky concerto is featured on Ehnes's new disc. "It's just such a wonderfully inviting piece," he says of this work, which he's been playing since he was 14 years old. "Despite [it] being a piece that's played a lot, I think that every time I play it there are a lot of people in the audience who have never heard it live before, or have never heard it at all before, so it's a great joy to be the one to be able to bring that to them. I certainly remember my excitement the first time I heard the piece!"

James Ehnes loves the flexibility and the virtuosity of this concerto, "There is a certain amount of spectacle involved with the concerto. It's just in its nature," Ehnes explains. "It has the beautiful melodies, it has the orchestral writing. There's wonderful interplay between the orchestra and the soloist." And then there's the big cadenza in the first movement, an opportunity for the soloist to let it rip. Many violinists including Jascha Heifetz have chosen to play the revised version of the cadenza, the one written by Leopold Auer, the violinist for whom this concerto was originally composed. But Ehnes says he's pretty nerdy about it, and prefers the one Tchaikovsky wrote. He especially loves the left-hand staccato technique the composer includes in this cadenza. "It's a little bit of a lost art, it's very difficult," he explains, "but when you get these runs, where you can play it on a single bow, with a smooth stroke and the left hand is clearly articulated through 12 or 15 notes, it's a really interesting effect. I enjoy working on it and when it goes well, I enjoy playing it that way."

The first movement has a big finish. It could almost be the end of the work, but Ehnes says the concerto is definitely richer with all three movements. The magical second movement is followed by a fiery finale that Ehnes says you won't want to miss, "There's an infamous tutti near the end of the piece that every orchestral string player knows well. That's one of THE moments!"

Vladimir Ashkenazy leads the Sydney Symphony on this recording, which is the second time Ehnes has been in the studio with his mentor. He was about 20 years old when he first had the chance to play with Ashkenazy at the podium. On this new release Ehnes got to know Vladimir Ashkenazy, the pianist. "A special bonus for me was to be able to record with him the three pieces for violin and piano," explains Ehnes. "He plays a lot less now, and I'd never had the chance to collaborate with him in that way before. So that was certainly an unforgettable experience. When he plays the piano, or conducts, his personality comes through. As a conductor you're sort of a medium, but at the piano there's something so immediate about his personality coming out of the instrument like that. It was a lot of fun."

The performance on this new release of Tchaikovsky's Valse-Scherzo for violin and orchestra is also a lot of fun. This work is best known in its edited version but on this recording Ehnes says you'll hear the original work. In fact each piece on this new release was recorded just as the composer intended, "We felt it was really a responsibility to play these pieces the way they were composed, the way they were published by Tchaikovsky. They were all published in his lifetime with his approval. So I think we can be proud of the recording. We felt very committed to what we were doing." As you listen to this new live recording, you'll hear that commitment come through loud and clear.

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