When the stars align perfectly for the essential elements of a recording project, the result can be magical. Sometimes award nominations follow as well. In the case of the new Bartók album from James Ehnes, the performers, the repertoire and even the instruments themselves all contributed to a recording of rarely heard concertos that stands as good a chance as any to take home a Juno for classical album of the year.
James Ehnes has already distinguished himself with a variety of past nominations and awards, including a coveted Grammy for his 2006 disc of concertos by Barber, Korngold and Walton with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Keeping with the thread of 20th-century violin concertos on this recent release by the English Chandos label, Ehnes has recorded all three string concertos (two for violin, one for viola) by Béla Bartók with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda. And as his artist’s statement from the CD liner notes reveals, Ehnes isn’t shy about his love of this repertoire.
“These three concertos are among the most striking examples of Bartók's early, middle and late periods, each with its own unique beauties and challenges, and are among my very favourite pieces to perform,” he writes. “They are tremendously difficult, both musically and technically, but incredibly rewarding, each showing a very different side of one of the great musical voices of all time.”
I asked Chandos Records managing director Ralph Couzens if this sometimes challenging music of Bartók is anything of a deterrent for record labels that must cater to tastes of the classical CD-buying audience.
“I think Bartók is one of those composers who in the wrong hands can frighten people away but given the right people doing it, the result can be so exciting,” Couzens said. “I believe this particular recording is going to attract a lot of attention from people who haven’t even thought about Bartók in the past, because they’ll listen to this and think, hang on, there’s something to this composer I didn’t realize before.”
Couzens shows a completist’s streak in his desire to compile all three concertos onto one release.
“I’ve known James for some years now, and I knew he played viola as well as the violin. This gave us the opportunity to release all three Bartók string concertos together. The other thing about James is he’s got this list as long as your arm of violas he can call upon because of his access to rare instrument collections. Every time I see him he’s got a different one, and they’re all worth millions.”
The viola used on this recording is the Rolla Giuseppe Guadagnini of 1793, generously loaned from the Fulton collection. Ehnes also plays the Marsick Stradivarius violin of 1715.
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Artist page: James Ehnes