The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at the Barber Institute on Wednesday 15 November 2017.
Ah, Bach. That’s what The Bluffer’s Guide to Music suggests you say if you’re ever stumped for opinions on old JS. He’s the greatest composer in Western music, you see. Everybody says so. And if it’s your job to have opinions on classical music, and you’re a Bachsceptic – you don’t care for fugues, say, or your enthusiasm for Lutheran dogma wears thin after the first hundred cantatas – you learn to keep that to yourself. What’s that, a whole evening of unaccompanied violin music? Ah, Bach!
That said, if any violinist could convince a doubter, it’d be James Ehnes – a virtuoso of golden tone and old-school brilliance, who never lets either ego or (commanding) intelligence get between him and the composer. He cut a smart if unassuming figure as he walked out at the Barber Institute. And then; well, the first thing you noticed was his sound – rich, firm, lustrous and layered. He’s generous with vibrato: there wasn’t a single coarse sound. From the very first notes of the B minor Partita, his violin sang.
But it danced, too. For every movement like the Fugue of the A minor Sonata – a study in controlled tension – there was something like the whirling verve that he brought to the finales of the A minor and C major Sonatas. Ehnes never imposed himself: the character here sprang from Bach, and it was unstinting, with the translucent sound Ehnes found for the A minor Sonata giving way to a solar radiance in the C major Sonata’s massive fugue. And every note felt honest. I’ve never seen a Barber Institute audience give a standing ovation before – and given the quality of so many of the Barber’s recitals, that’s saying something. Especially from a Bachsceptic.