August 27th 2008

Review from November 2006


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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 (1945) [25:02]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto, Op.14 (1939–40) [23:32]
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Violin Concerto (1938-39, rev. 1943) [30:02]
James Ehnes (violin)
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Bramwell Tovey
rec. 22-23 February, 2006 (Korngold), 6-7 June, 2006 (Barber; Walton), Orpheum Theater, Vancouver, Canada. DDD
ONYX 4016 [78:53]

You can read the full review here


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. 

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.    

Sound Sample: Korngold Violin Concerto

1st Movement here 2nd Movement here 3rd Movement here

I am delighted with this performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto by James Ehnes and I will certainly not be actively searching for an alternative version in a hurry.

Barber’s Violin Concerto:
As with the Korngold Violin Concerto I was immediately aware of the influence of Prokofiev’s second Violin Concerto (1935) . 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. Joshua Bell on Decca takes a more intense and emotionally expressive approach which on the whole I prefer. This is electrifyingly confident playing from Ehnes that is bursting with life in this tour de force closing movement marked presto in moto perpetuo.    

Sound Sample: Barber Violin Concerto

1st Movement here 2nd Movement here 3rd Movement here


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. 

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.       

Sound Sample: Walton Violin Concerto

1st Movement here 2nd Movement here 3rd Movement here


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 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.  

Michael Cookson