Concert Review: Toronto Symphony Orchestra – Ehnes Plays Britten


Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony

Thurs. Oct. 10, 2013 at 8:00pm

Roy Thomson Hall

Stéphane Denève, conductor

James Ehnes, violin


James MacMillan: Three Interludes from The Sacrifice (Canadian Première)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”

Britten: Violin Concerto


Every year, early in the TSO’s season, the Canadian violinist James Ehnes visits Toronto for a usually spectacular performance. This year was no exception. Joined by Stéphane Denève on the conductor’s podium, James Ehnes performed the Britten Violin Concerto, quite appropriately, on the centennial year of Britten’s birth.

The concert started out with the Canadian premiere of three interludes from the opera The Sacrifice by Scottish composer James MacMillan. As is the case with many other opera extractions, knowledge of the drama behind the music vastly enhances the listening experience. Fortunately, Stéphane Denève made sure to brief the audience on the plot of The Sacrifice, which premiered in 2007. The three interludes correspond to first the titular sacrifice, in which the hero must give his partner up to another man for the diplomatic union of two rival clans; then the tense gathering of the consequently allied but de facto bitter clans; and finally the assassination by the hero of the young child resulting from the aforementioned union, at his crowning. Expectedly, there is a lot of tension and angst in these interludes; however, it is a much sustained and even increasing tension that keeps the audience unsettled throughout, rather unlike the overt and immediately graspable drama of a Mozart or Beethoven overture. The performance was inspired to say the least; the timing and dynamic range of the orchestra did not suffer despite the piece’s obvious technical difficulty or its novelty. The music itself, I find, would have been hard to understand without some influence.

Following the MacMillan, James Ehnes took the stage to perform Britten. I have every so often been asked, by acquaintances less familiar with the craft, why it is I would still take violin lessons if I have already learned to play the violin. This question would make a bit more sense if the craft in question were swimming or riding a bicycle; the threshold beyond which an instrumentalist’s ability prevents his fall or drowning onstage is much harder to define. Well, by my account, James Ehnes has learned to play the violin. The Britten Violin Concerto is certainly one of the most technically challenging pieces to play on the violin, and as Ehnes finessed through each increasingly difficult passage with impossible facility, I was left in an awe usually reserved for Hilary Hahn recordings. Not only was his intonation impeccable even through the most difficult passages, his phrasing and tone really made his performance hard to top. There is a power in his high register which is normally accompanied by harshness on the violin, but which he portrays with inexplicable tenderness. The violin concerto, while virtuosic, is in fact quite symphonic, and very inventive with both solo and orchestra parts. In particular, the extensive use of artificial harmonics in the solo part along with some complex piccolo and flute parts create timbres that are rarely heard in the Romantic repertoire. The work combines lyricism and capriciousness for a beautiful product, which is unfortunately relatively unknown. Once again, I will definitely keep an eye out for future performances of this piece. As an encore, Ehnes performed the Largo from Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for solo violin. What really struck me in the encore was how swiftly and completely he changed his style from the rich romanticism of Britten to the restraint and serenity of Bach. My advice to the reader is to put a James Ehnes concert on his or her bucket list, but at the same time I recommend attending good concerts by some up-and-coming performers beforehand in order to appreciate why he is special.

Following the intermission, Stéphane Denève led the TSO in what might be called a historically informed performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. In Beethoven’s time (the year1804 saw the premiere of Symphony No. 3), the orchestra looked and sounded quite different than it does today. For starters, orchestras were generally smaller, and many of the wind and brass instruments had not developed to their modern form yet. Even the string instruments had some structural differences. The tuning of orchestras at the time was also lower, that is to say, everything that Beethoven composed was originally meant to be performed at a slightly lower intonation than it is most often heard today. Tonight’s performance did not employ period tuning, nor did it use period instruments, but the size and seating arrangement of the orchestra was more closely matched to that of Beethoven’s time than usual; the two violin sections sat at either side of the conductor, facing, rather than adjacent to each other. The orchestra also tailored its playing style to Beethoven’s time, whereby vibrato was much less liberally employed (often all but absent), and reduced its size just enough to produce a chamber orchestra sound and better highlight the timpani. The edition of the Symphony also seemed to have been slightly different than the common one. The result was a noticeably “classical”, but still familiar sounding Beethoven Symphony No. 3. Denève’s interpretation, possibly in keeping with Beethoven’s intentions, was slightly quicker and more fluid than usual, and involved minimal tempo variation. I would have expected the resulting performance to be less dramatic than I am used to, but it was in fact every bit as exciting as other more contemporary Beethoven performances. Without the use of vibrato and tempo rubato, the devices available for dramatic effect were more limited to orchestration and dynamic contrast, and this really showcased the accuracy and control of the orchestra as well as the conductor. The second half of this concert might have been overshadowed by the spectacular James Ehnes, but in fact the performance of the Symphony No. 3 was really just as impressive as that of the Britten.

This concert was an incredibly satisfying one, and I really look forward to the return of not just James Ehnes, but Stéphane Denève as well. However, once again, I must take the last paragraph to point out that the TSO audience was rather distracting. Even with the Canadian Premiere of the Three Interludes, audience members were able to find the morendos and grand pauses to cough, sneeze, and unwrap wrapped objects, as if planned. I worry that one of these days a soloist will tire of the interruptions.


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