ALBUM TITLE: American Chamber Music
WORKS: Works by Copland, Ives, Bernstein, Carter and Barber
PERFORMER: James Ehnes (violin); Musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society
The virtuoso violinist James Ehnes combines with the Seattle Chamber Music Society, of which he is artistic director, in a programme of familiar and unfamiliar music by well-known American composers. Copland’s Violin Sonata ought to be better known than it is: vintage Copland, it was written in 1943 shortly before Appalachian Spring, and displays much of the ballet’s variety of invention and flexibility of tempo. Ehnes is brilliant and incisive in the faster music, but his consistently intense vibrato seems at odds with Copland’s moments of plain-speaking simplicity; pianist Orion Weiss is a model of clarity.
Barber’s String Quartet is both well and less-well known: its central slow movement is the original version of Barber’s famous Adagio for strings, while the complete work with its dramatic opening Allegro and perfunctory coda is less often heard. The Ehnes Quartet play the outer sections with forceful tone and driving forward movement, but in the Adagio their throbbing vibrato robs the climax of its radiance.
Ehnes leaves his colleagues the rest of the programme: Ives’s Largo for violin, clarinet and piano, in which the violin soars above ostinato cross-rhythms; Elliott Carter’s early, rather dour Elegy for viola and piano; and Leonard Bernstein’s rare Piano Trio, written when he was a 19-year-old Harvard student – a restless piece full of abrupt changes of tempo and texture, with some dutiful fugues. These are accomplished performances on a disc that’s imaginatively planned and ultimately rewarding. Anthony Burton