Britten • Shostakovich – Violin Concertos

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COMPOSERS: Britten; Shostakovich
ALBUM TITLE: Britten • Shostakovich – Violin Concertos
WORKS: Britten: Violin Concerto; Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1
PERFORMER: James Ehnes (violin); Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits


These concertos make an ideal coupling: after the shining symphonic climax of Britten’s ‘Passacaglia’, his soloist’s sad, shadowy valediction opens the door into Shostakovich’s tragic world.

James Ehnes’s mastery is breathtaking in both works: comparing his Britten with Tasmin Little (Chandos, reviewed above) and Anthony Marwood (Hyperion), every double-stopped chord and octave gleams, every demi-semi quaver rings true, which is not to detract from the profound sincerity of his performance. Display aside, Britten’s elliptical Concerto stands or falls on the conviction of the performer’s sense of line. Kirill Karabits and Ehnes share a powerful idea of its narrative, and each scene is vividly realised, from the sensuous ‘Spanish’ opening to a hugely exciting Vivace. They allow the Concerto’s mysterious spaces to open out like ripples in a pool, and if their Passacaglia isn’t quite as moving as Little and Gardner’s, it’s never less than compelling.

Karabits draws searing clarity, balance and detail from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra: the delicacy of the trumpets and burnished tone of the flute are notable, while brass chorales are wonderfully tuned. His treatment of the Shostakovich Concerto is riveting: the first movement is beautifully shaped and held in magical balance. The Scherzo has a satisfyingly sharp bite, as does a thrillingly fast final ‘Burlesque’. Though Ehnes’s cadenza captivates, I missed a sense of sombre weight in the ‘Passacaglia’, the crux of the work. Karabits ensures the bass-line has an inexorable flow, but the violin line slips by too cleanly, a little too fast compared to the dark, granitic strength of David Oistrakh’s legendary performance, or the visceral intensity of Maxim Vengerov’s (Teldec).


Helen Wallace