New Classical Tracks: Mendelssohn Reflections

by Julie Amacher
January 11, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks - January 12, 2011
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James Ehnes - Mendelssohn Violin Concerto/Octet: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Philharmonia Orchestra (Onyx 4060) (Courtesy of Onyx Classics)

A few years ago Canadian violinist James Ehnes was hailed as "the Jascha Heifetz of our day," by the Globe and Mail newspaper. "Yeh, when that article came out I felt like sending that guy a check," Ehnes chuckles.

Ehnes isn't exactly sure what that quote means; however he does admit Heifetz is one of his heroes. "Certainly he's a musician I admire a great deal for his integrity," Ehnes explains. "I think he played the way he believed in always." It's the honesty in a performance that Ehnes admires most in other musicians, and it's what he expects of himself. His brand new release is a live recording of two pieces by a composer Ehnes highly admires, Felix Mendelssohn: the Violin Concerto in e minor, and the Octet. "The two pieces are from opposite ends of his artistic life, but they are so quintessentially who he was as a composer," Ehnes clarifies, "It's like once he found his voice, that voice was perfect. I know there has been criticism of Mendelssohn, of him not finding his voice, and I think that's just crazy. If you're already perfect at being Mendelssohn why would you want to change that?"

For the violin concerto, James Ehnes is reunited with the Philharmonia Orchestra, with whom he recorded the Elgar Violin Concerto. Ehnes feels this ensemble is truly special. "The string sound is to my ears very cohesive," says Ehnes> "It's very much the sound of a unit." What makes this performance even better, according to Ehnes, is that for the first time he gets to work with his longtime friend, mentor and colleague, Vladimir Ashkenazy, who leads the Philharmonia Orchestra. "When we play together there's a lot that doesn't need to be discussed because we have certain feelings about music that are similar," says Ehnes. "The way we approach things the way we want to hear it, it takes some of the complication out of it and makes it a very rewarding experience." It also makes it rewarding for the listener. Ehnes has played the Mendelssohn concerto close to one hundred times, but this is the first time he's been willing to put his stamp on it by recording it. "I've formed very strong opinions about what I want to do and I'm happy with this recording because it accurately reflects how I feel about the piece," he explains.

Ehnes believes it's his responsibility as a player to somehow digest what the composer put down on the page. That's one reason Ehnes plays the cadenza in the first movement exactly as Mendelssohn wrote it, "I thought that a cadenza written clearly with that much care--and it was published with Mendelssohn's approval in an edition that came out during his lifetime, which he corrected--he pretty specifically was asking for what was on that page."

While it was the Mendelssohn violin concerto that brought this new CD into being, James Ehnes is also thrilled about including Mendelssohn's early masterpiece, the Octet in E flat Major. He performs it with the Musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, "The Seattle Chamber Society is an organization that plays a big part in my life," Ehnes says. "I've been going out to their summer festival for the past 15 years and I'm taking over as artistic director in 2012, so it will become an even bigger part of my life. The musicians who come out there are not just musical colleagues, but some of my closest friends." Ehnes steps into the role of chamber musician quite eloquently in this performance, which features seven other string players, all of whom have professional musical careers, including Cynthia Phelps, principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, and Robert de Maine, principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This Octet, which was recorded during the festival last year. is a delightful musical souvenir which can now be shared with others.

Recording the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of his favorite pieces, with his dear friend Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra was like a dream come true for James Ehnes. And, he's already had the chance to relive that dream. Recently they recorded another disc together featuring works by Tchaikovsky, which will be released later in 2011.