Elgar: Violin Concerto; Serenade for Strings

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: Onyx
ALBUM TITLE: Elgar, Violin Concerto
WORKS: Violin Concerto; Serenade for Strings

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PERFORMER: James Ehnes (violin); Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Davis

CATALOGUE NO: 4025
Take almost any passage at random from the Violin Concerto in this recording – apart from Andrew Davis’s surprisingly stolid introduction – and it’s hard not to be impressed. James Ehnes has a lovely ripe vibrato and an expressive openness that touches the heart from his first entry. Elgar spoke of having written out his soul in this work, and whether Ehnes knows that remark or not, that’s certainly the effect he conveys. It’s when it comes to the balancing of confessional intimacy with symphonic purposefulness that I’m not so convinced. Without that balance the Concerto can come across as loose and sprawling.

Ehnes does try to drive the music forward in places, but the impression is more of spurts of activity amidst long stretches of dreamy lyricism. I also found myself wishing that he could bring just a little more tonal contrast: that rich vibrato isn’t unvarying, but it does tend sound like a default colouring rather than something used for genuinely expressive effect. For something close to ideal in all the above respects I keep coming back to the 1929 Albert Sammons recording, in a remarkably clear and fresh Naxos transfer. It’s one of those rare historical issues which, far from sounding beguilingly ‘antique’, conveys the impression that the music-making is taking place right in front of you. And for those who insist on a modern recording, there’s an impressive alternative, with plenty of Elgarian vigour and passion, from Dong-Suk Kang, also on Naxos.

Davis may seem earthbound at the start of the Concerto, but his version of the exquisite Serenade is fluent and intense – not quite the warm open-heartedness of the classic Barbirolli version with the Sinfonia of London, but for overall conviction it runs him close.

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Stephen Johnson