Mendelssohn: Keyboard Concertos

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64; Octet in E Flat, Op. 20
PERFORMER: James Ehnes (violin); Musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society; Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: Onyx 4060

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From his very first entry in the Concerto, James Ehnes draws us into Mendelssohn’s magic world of simplicity, melancholy and elegance. From here the virtuoso passages grow organically – they feel right, as though they could not conceivably be other than they are.

Of course, Mendelssohn must take credit for some of this. But Ehnes, eschewing flashiness or vulgarity and never, for instance, indulging in changes of bowing just to show what he can do, shows us the ‘restrained Romanticism’ which, according to André Gide, lies at the true heart of Classicism.

Vladimir Ashkenazy allows him some liberty over tempo in the first movement, especially with the preparation and delivery of the second subject, but nothing that obstructs the flow of ideas. Together they draw a long line through this reflective section, leading with unassailable logic to Ehnes’s climactic high A, before we return to the energy of the opening. The Andante is, happily, not taken as an Adagio, and there is sparkle aplenty in the finale. Throughout, Ehnes’s sweet, unforced tone is a pure delight.

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In the Octet, he leads a fine ensemble, fully alive to the mercurial wit of the Scherzo and, at the other extreme, to the emotional depth of the Andante. As so often, the final Presto poses a problem: do you play safe over speed and guarantee an audible pitch for the opening low cello motif, or do you go for broke and let E flat major establish itself as and when it can? The Seattle players take the second option and the close recording does contribute to delaying the E flat a little too long – but it’s my only gripe about this performance. Roger Nichols