Ehnes brings noble intensity to Beethoven with Philharmonic

Thu Jan 28, 2016 at 2:40 pm
James Ehnes performed Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Juanjo Mena and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

James Ehnes performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Juanjo Mena and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The pairing that the New York Philharmonic presented on Wednesday night was about as heavy a program as can be: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, one of the longest and most cerebral entries in the genre, and Bruckner’s  Sixth Symphony, an epic, self-searching work that seems as though it might have inspired Thomas Mann. A concert like this can be exhausting for everyone involved, and one can hardly blame the audience for exiting in a hurry at its conclusion.

But on Wednesday, just about twelve hours after having met their new music director, Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic demonstrated some of their finest playing working under the baton of Juanjo Mena.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is justly regarded as a first among equals in its category, at once the last great Classical violin concerto and the first one of what would prove to be a flourishing Romantic period for the instrument. Although (and perhaps because) it doesn’t require the technical wizardry of the other concerti in the pantheon, the piece requires tremendous musical intelligence to perform convincingly.

James Ehnes is the sort of composed violinist who can, in fact, render a compelling interpretation of this touchstone work. His performance on Wednesday exhibited none of the preciousness that afflicts some interpreters of this piece. Though he occasionally took his stoicism too far—notably in the rhapsodic cadenzas by Fritz Kreisler—his playing, while poised and controlled, was never disinterested. Ehnes’s technique is unfalteringly secure and his tone gleaming, but he allowed himself enough range to push the edges of the sound and give the piece a subtle intensity.

Above all, Ehnes’s interpretation was one of exemplary clarity. This concerto, adhering faithfully to traditional form, presents the solo part as a character rather than a narrative, and Ehnes portrayed its essential nobility with grace. The various themes of the first movement, culminating in Kreisler’s soaring cadenza, seemed packed with great-hearted Romantic idealism, and the dreaming of the coda was tender enough to make the audience levitate.

The violinist brought some unaccustomed smoke to his sound in the Larghetto, and though he tended to place his impulses in somewhat predictable places, his reading on the whole was lovely. The playful character he portrayed in the closing Rondo struck a perfect balance between impish and coy, and the thrilling coda, where Beethoven presents the violinist as a triumphant hero of myth, positively beamed.

Ehnes could hardly have asked for a better partner than the Philharmonic. Led by Mena, the orchestra sounded remarkably robust, weaving rapturous textures and a finely crafted mesh in the first movement’s exposition and channeling a romping spirit in the Rondo.

Even more impressive, in its way, was the account that Mena and the Philharmonic gave of Bruckner’s massive Sixth Symphony. This work is not so immediately gratifying as Beethoven’s concerto—its epic length seems an essential point in its argument, which can result in a trying experience for an audience.

The journey that Mena guided, though, was one worth following. He treated much of the symphony, notably its opening Majestoso, like a force of nature to be unleashed. There was a thrilling tidal quality to the music’s progression, and at the peaks, Mena made no apologies for the notorious acoustics of David Geffen Hall, asking the orchestra to blare at full volume. He demonstrated a superb sense for the structure of the piece, but what was most striking was the astonishingly precise control he showed over the orchestra’s levels and textures. An aggressive, martial passage would give way to pastoral reflection at the turn of a hair.

The strings produced a visceral, sweating heat in the second movement without obscuring Bruckner’s tart internal harmonies. To their credit, even as the impatient audience members began to excuse themselves, the musicians of the Philharmonic never flagged in their energy, keeping up a nagging intensity in the Scherzo and maintaining the rolling fluidity of the Finale all the way through to its majestic close.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at David Geffen Hall.

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