James Ehnes with the MSO

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Published: 9th August, 2016

In establishing a closer, more extended working relationship between orchestral members and top soloists such as Canadian violinist James Ehnes, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has found a winning formula.

One of the most stunning performances heard by this reviewer last year came from Kolja Blacher and selected MSO strings in Bartók’s Divertimento. The immaculate precision, finely integrated tone and degree of musical nuance was simply breathtaking. By sheer coincidence, the Basel Chamber Orchestra had played the same work in the cavernous Hamer Hall a few days before. It was a fine performance but lacked the impact of the MSO performance in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall’s brilliant acoustic.

Although both Blacher and Ehnes played concertos, by Brahms and Bach respectively, this latest program differed in that all the works were for string orchestra alone. Beginning with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro the MSO players again demonstrated just how sumptuous a smaller body of strings can sound in this venue. Ehnes, and Principals Matthew Tomkins (second violin), Christopher Moore (viola) and David Berlin (cello) formed the solo string quartet with Dale Barltrop as Concertmaster in what the program describes as laying “some claim to being Elgar’s most perfect work”. By having the quartet play in various conformations: as an ensemble, individual soloists or part of the orchestra, and sometimes dividing the main body of strings into eight or nine parts, Elgar has created a wide range of striking effects that were further enhanced by a variety of string techniques and musical devices. Although the violins tended to dominate, the contrast between the intimacy of the quartet and the ripping force of the full string tone was a real thrill. From Moore’s ardent solo viola and its orchestral echoes to the emotional power of the Welsh tune, this performance was so impressive in its virtuosity and interest that it had me wondering why it has taken ten years for the MSO to play this gem again.

Ehnes also had ample scope in Bach’s popular Violin Concerto No.2 in E major to demonstrate his refined musicality. It was another unaffected, elegantly shaped performance. He negotiated the demands of the cracking pace of the opening Allegro with deft assurance. With the contrasting Adagio sufficiently subdued and subtle to hear Donald Nicolson on the red harpsichord clearly, Ehnes revealed the lyricism of this movement in all its expressive beauty, producing a tone that was at once sensitive and substantial. The concluding Allegro assai was dancelike in its light-footed energy with Ehnes a graceful physical performer.

After interval, Puccini’s six-minute work Crisantemi was given its first performance by the MSO. Polished playing made this elegiac work a doubly welcome inclusion. This time warm lower strings dominated as it ended on a melancholy note.

The sweeping melodies of Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings with its contrasting five movements provided a most enjoyable conclusion to a program that was a little on the short side but felt exactly the right length. Interesting repetitive echoing in the Moderato, followed by a graceful swirling Valse with effective dynamic shadings, more canonic repetition in the Scherzo with its swift climax, an emotional Larghetto played with tenderness by the first violins, and familiar themes recurring for the urgent Finale were all invested with the kind of musicality and commitment that left an appreciative audience very glad to have been part of the experience.

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Reviewer Heather Leviston’s note:

This concert featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra & James Ehnes was at the Melbourne Recital Centre on August 4, on a busy weekend musically speaking.  The Dorcas McLean Travelling Scholarship for Violinists concert was at the MRC on Friday night. Other members of the MSO were accompanying that while the Ehnes strings were down in Geelong. Unfortunately, I missed that one but did hear the Australian Youth Orchestra play splendidly for their Melbourne concert on Saturday night. Just returned from their European tour they were obviously on a high from their success and inspired by Maestro Manfred Honek.

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