James Ehnes: a one-man show

This was the one I’ve been looking forward to for months, as James Ehnes played a full program of unaccompanied violin music in Koerner Hall.   I swear Ehnes played more notes than what he’d be required to play in three concerts with orchestra.  He was completely exposed, nowhere to hide.  Koerner’s acoustic gave us such intimacy that it was as though we could hear Ehnes’ thoughts.

The program consisted of four items:

  • The Partita in B minor of JS Bach
  • The “Ballade” from Sonata #3 of Eugène Ysaÿe
  • Sonatina “In homage to JS Bach” by Barrie Cabena in its world premiere
  • The Partita in D minor of JS Bach

Without question this was the best concert I heard so far in 2017.


Violinist James Ehnes (photo: Ben Ealovega)

I am reminded of something from long ago in my undergraduate days, studying philosophy.  I dimly recall a kind of hierarchy of the disciplines, with the understanding that mathematics is more pure than physics, which is more pure than chemistry and softer sciences are understood to be lower in the pecking order.  I can’t recall whether metaphysics –meaning religion—trumped science in the end, only that there’s something similar at work in the arts.  Walter Pater said “all the arts aspire to the condition of music.”  And what do the different types of music aspire to? I have to think that when we transcribe Bach for orchestra –as Stokowski did in the 20th century—that it waters down (some might say “bastardizes”) its purity.  I find the original piano version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky purer than the bombastic orchestrated version by Ravel.  The purest and more rarefied music? The solo violin music by JS Bach.  While I’ve played piano transcriptions of the Chaconne in D minor that concludes that Partita, both the massive one by Busoni and the subtler one-handed one by Brahms, each aspires after the rare air of the original.  And while I’ve heard this wonderful music in recordings, I realize now that it’s a totally different experience live, watching the violinist martial his/her resources, shaping phrases and building drama.  This is a most memorable performance, that bodes well for the festival.  The day after tomorrow –Wednesday night July 19th –Ehnes will be back, teamed with Jonathan Crow at the Church of the Redeemer in an all- Bach program.

For the B minor it’s eight movements, some delicate and lyrical, some brilliantly fast.  One wouldn’t believe how much variety there is in this music, but for the subtleties Ehnes brings, sometimes so soulful and distant, then urgent and passionate.

And then we came to Ysaÿe, and it was clear we’re not in Leipzig anymore, Toto.  Here Ehnes used a different body language, leaning from one foot to the other, playing a piece that was almost like an eight minute cadenza, big bold melodic lines, powerful double stops, delicate little figures, then heavy accents leading to an explosive ending.

Cabena’s new work might be understood as neo-classical if this were the early 20th century, or perhaps we can call it “post-modern” in this century, for its use of recognizable phrases that remind one of Bach.  It would have been better had they found space in the program to explain & discuss a bit, as a new work really benefits from explanation more than the pieces we’ve heard before, both to explain the inter-textual references, but also to give us some context within the composer’s other works.

And then we came to the item I was really waiting for, namely the D-minor Bach. In March I posted an earlier Ehnes performance of the Chaconne that I found on youtube, that pales beside what I heard tonight. In person I watched the drama unfold, an entire audience spellbound, mesmerized.  Wow.

It’s better in person of course.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to James Ehnes: a one-man show

  1. Anne Francis says:

    Very interesting post! I posted the same video of Ehnes performing the Chaconne in my own blog, a few months ago (after watching several others). Check it out: http://www.annefrancis.ca/blog I attended his master class last week. What an utterly down-to-earth, humble man… typically Canadian. He even joked at one point about choosing typically Canadian restraint as an alternative to really going for it, in the piece under discussion.

  2. barczablog says:

    Thank you for the kind words. I’ve just (quickly) read your blog about the piece. I sympathize with your remarks about the daunting amount of music out there –works and performances– although I never felt bad about being only partway up the mountain. It’s a fun journey no matter how you approach it. I would btw recommend a Schirmer anthology of transcriptions that I wrote about awhile ago, that contains both the Busoni and the Brahms versions of the Chaconne side by side (plus Busoni’s hair-raising take on the St Anne organ prelude and a little bit of Rachmaninoff (whose take on Schubert and Mendelssohn is out of this world, but not in that anthology, which is only Bach). I was so lucky to be invited to the Toronto Summer Music Festival launch a few months ago, when we had a preview from Ehnes, who was in town that week for the Toronto Symphony concert he played the next day. I would have to agree, he’s such a wonderful ambassador, such a nice person. We are I believe re-inventing the idea of the virtuoso and the human being over the past few decades, as we see new ideas of what a conductor does (for a shining example, think of David Fallis) and how they behave. Thank you so much for commenting.. and i shall have to delve deeper into your blog.

  3. Pingback: Ave atque vale 2017 | barczablog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s