Tuesday 28 May 2013

Britten and Shostakovich Violin Concertos - James Ehnes, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kyrill Karabits

Britten & Shostakovich violin concertos, James Ehnes, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kyrill Karabits ONYX 4113
The young Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits became chief conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2007 and is set to be there until 2016. The two have forged a remarkable partnership and for 2013 they are surveying the relationship between Britten and Shostakovich in a series of concerts. This new disc, recorded in 2012, complements their live season as it pairs Britten's Violin Concerto with Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 (written less than ten years after Britten's). The soloist in both works is the young Canadian violinist James Ehnes, playing the 'Marsick' Stradivarius of 1715. 

Britten composed in a wide variety of genres but a remarkable number of his purely orchestral and concertante works date from before his breakthrough with Peter Grimes (1945), as if once he had discovered the way forward with opera he did not need to return to purely orchestral music. His Violin Concerto was started in 1938 and premiered in 1940. It is his only concertante work for violin, though he would write the Cello Symphony for Rostropovich in 1963. The Violin Concerto was written for the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa, whom Britten had met through his teacher Frank Bridge. The concerto was begun whilst the Spanish Civil War was still going and completed after the outbreak of World War II. Brosa premiered the concerto in 1940 at Carnegie Hall in New York with John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Written in the traditional three movements, the work opens with a rhythm in the timpani which is evidently Spanish in origin, but here is hardly local colour but an essential and fascinating germ for the whole movement. When Ehnes' violin solo starts there result is gloriously bitter-sweet with Ehnes' lovely singing tone and fine line contrasting with the essential melancholy of the material. As the orchestra comments, Karabits encourages them to be edgier, giving darker undertones to the music. The second subject has a relentlessness which rather recalls Shostakovitch, though here it is the Spanish rhythms of the first subject which triumph - after the development the second subject is hardly present.

All is not darkness, there are some wonderfully delicate moments. When the first subject returns in the strings, with the solo violin articulating the Spanish rhythm, Karabits and Ehnes make the moment spine tingling, a wonderful combination of tenderness, edginess and melancholy. Throughout, Ehnes plays with a fine, sweet and quite narrow tone, particularly notable when playing high. He does not try to coat the edginess of the piece in the sugar of vibrato laden romanticism. The end of the moment, when it comes is elegant and expressive.

The second movement, Vivace, starts with a dark brilliance, all edge and bite. The orchestra's powerful insistency is met with sweetness from the violin. As in the first movement, Karabits' speeds are quite steady, this movement is not a fun scherzo, it is serious with a strongly dramatic narrative.

There is a wonderful clarity to the orchestral playing, with such notable moments as Britten's combination of a tuba and piccolo. Karabits allows the big orchestral climax to develop powerfully, leading to the brilliant, incisive and tender cadenza, technically superb.

For the opening of the final movement Passacaglia, Karabits brings out the neo-classical Hindemith-like elements in the work, combining clarity of line with power. The violin by contrast is all nervous energy and edge. By combining a passacaglia with a theme which uses all twelve chromatic notes, Britten is evoking the music of Berg, a composer he admired and the movement has a similar bleakness. But there are also clear pre-echoes of the mature operas.

Ehnes' playing combines a superb technique with intensity, whilst Karabits and the orchestra bring out the grandeur of Britten's writing, with a feeling of something of Shostakovich's edge, but without the Russian composer's sarcasm. This is a supremely intelligent and finely responsive performance from all concerned, played with remarkable technical assurance. Karabits clearly brings a European eye to Britten, linking him to his contemporaries like Hindemith, Berg and Shostakovich.

Dmitri Shostakovich's Violin Concerto no 1 in A minor was begun in 1947, seven years after Britten's was premiered. It was written whilst Shostakovich was under a dark cloud as a result of the Soviet purge against 'Western-style formalism' in music. Though the work was complete by 1948, Shostakovich withheld it and it was not premiered until 1955 (2 years after Stalin's death) when the dedicatee, David Oistrakh, gave the first performance in Leningrad with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.

For the opening Nocturne, Ehnes again brings a lovely singing tone to be movement, playing with intensity and great beauty. This is complemented by the dark menace from the orchestra, with Karabits giving the work an expressionist neo-classical clarity of texture. There are moments of painful, almost confessional intimacy and the cold, aetherial night music is made rather disturbing by both soloist and orchestra.

Whilst Ehnes keeps up the intensity throughout the movement, his playing never becomes over strenuous. We are always aware of the singing solo line, complemented by dark but wonderfully enticing textures of the orchestra. This is a night which is apparently quiet, but hides all manner of things.

The Scherzo opens with a very striking orchestral texture where Karabits brings out the low clarinet. There is energy galore here, but it isn't a fun movement. Though Karabits speeds are a bit steady, he allows the manic nature of  the movement to develop and there is some lovely incisive playing from Ehnes. It is fascinating the way Shostakovich combines apparently popular rhythms, with such edgy harmonies. Ehnes and Karabits develop the movements brilliant, obsessive energy, with hints of a completely demented dance.

Again we have a Passacaglia, though Shostakovich uses as his main theme a melody which hints at a chorale; the moments when the chorale returns bring a real feeling of consolation. Karabits is clearly in good control of the structure here, and he creates a gradually build up of power. This movement confirms the feeling from the rest of the disc, of the strength of the relationship between Ehnes, Karabits and the orchestra, with a real feeling of partnership.

The cadenza is the emotional heart of the concerto. Shostakovich's writing is strenuous, but Ehnes plays with a brilliant intensity, leading in to a sardonic Burlesque notable for its manic energy, with all concerned bringing the movement to an incredible conclusion.

Inevitably you will want Britten's own recording of his concerto (with Mark Lubotsky as the soloist and the English Chamber Orchestra), currently available coupled with Britten's Piano Concerto. Similarly you'll probably want to have David Oistrakh's recording of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto no. 1. But this new disc, making a fascinating linkage between two great contemporaries and friends, shows both works in fresh new light with the combination of young soloist and conductor. The disc was recorded after a series of brilliant live performances and this shows in the intensity and vision. Highly recommended.

The disc is available from 3 June 2013.

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Violin Concerto op 15 (1938/40) [31.14]
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975) - Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor op. 77 (1947/48) [35.51]
James Ehnes (violin)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Kyrill Karabits (conductor)
Recorded 1-2 December 2013, the Lighthouse, Poole.

ONYX CLASSICS ONYX 4113 1Cd [66.56]

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