I've been putting off listening to this 2013 CD release for years, actually. I stumbled across it today while doing some filing, still in the cellophane and covered in dust. The reason I bought it in the first place: James Ehnes. The reason for the neglect: Kirill Karabits. I have had very few positive experiences with this conductor's recordings. But I found myself in the mood for some Shostakovich and decided to open this up and have a go at it.
I love James Ehnes's gorgeous, rich, textured tone. But what works so beautifully in the Britten seems to work just as strongly against him in the Shostakovich. I'm not a violinist and therefore don't understand the mechanics of why this richness of tone seems to come at the expense of real muscle and bite.
I did listen to the Shostakovich first, and in a word, it is lovely. And rather bland. And that's just not what I'm looking for in Shostakovich. The rich tone can't help but be a thing of beauty to hear in the opening Moderato. But it's missing the angst. And the stark, foreboding poignancy. It's just...lovely. And the Scherzo and Burlesque which follow just don't have enough fire.
In all fairness, the problem here isn't really the soloist as much as it is the limp orchestral support. I have rarely heard Kirill Karabits muster up much life on the podium (at least on record) and I am perplexed why Bournemouth keeps him. How he can so consistently fail to inspire or lead his orchestra to a minimal level of musical involvement is a mystery. This Shostakovich isn't bad, there just isn't the slightest hint of Russian soul in it.
The Britten is much more successful - thanks to Ehnes's lovely singing lines and the beautiful recorded sound from Onyx. The orchestra can coast along through this one without much effort and Ehnes carries it nicely. (Although the Vivace, which bustles along, isn't as hair-raising as usual.)
In both works, the violin is placed at a natural perspective, neither forward nor recessed. The relaxed, colorful, lovely recorded acoustic suits the Britten beautifully but does the Shostakovich no favors.
I can't help but think Ehnes deserves a better partner. Or maybe not. Perhaps this lyrical, relaxed approach is exactly what he's going for and why he teamed up with Karabits. But whatever the reasons, I found this CD to be a mixed bag. The beautiful, atmospheric recorded sound from Onyx was definitely the highlight for me.
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