It was hearing James Ehnes play the Beethoven concerto that first attracted me to this concert, not least because he has just recorded it and the results sound fantastic. The concerto is probably still what will stick with me most from this evening, though it took longer to gel than I had expected. Ehnes is my favourite violinist working today – I love the understated certainty of his playing and the totally unostentatious way he makes the violin fly – and his take on Beethoven’s concerto was typically lyrical and poetic. This finest of fiddlers can make the violin sing like few others, and you could tell from his softly-softly entry how sensitively he understood the music. The first movement didn’t quite seem to cohere, however, and at times I got the impression that Edward Gardner was trying to take the orchestra in a slightly different direction. There wasn’t much spark, little chemistry, and big moments such as the launch of the recapitulation didn’t get me excited in the way they really should.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

However, things improved with some gorgeous orchestral tone in the Larghetto, and Ehnes was a delight throughout, summoning a songful lyricism in the violin’s bel canto lines, and underlining key moments such as the beautiful melancholy of the violin’s minor key melody at the end of the development, or the gloriously lyrical counter-melody of the slow movement. He worked wonders of poetry with the cadenza (Kreisler’s), and he was dazzling in the Rondo, particularly in the final stretch when he seemed to be pulling notes out of thin air.

Gardner’s partnership with the orchestra was much more successful elsewhere, such as in a sparkling account of Adams’ The Chairman Dances, which moved with the composer’s characteristic circular energy, even more manic than normal here, and ended with a lovely touch of humour via a neatly schmaltzy violin theme in the middle.

Schmaltzy isn’t a word you’d readily apply to Sibelius’ Second Symphony, but the tone for this really successful performance was set by the beautifully welcoming sound of the opening pulse, with a gorgeous string tone for a first movement that gathered momentum quietly, as Sibelius should. Those strings also sounded magnificent for the spectral slow movement, before warming up exquisitely for the “Christ” theme, and they, too carried the tide of momentum from the Scherzo into the finale. More than anything, though, the finale struck me as a showcase for the whole RSNO family, with the vibrant strings underpinned by powerful brass and winds that were clear as a bell. It even won over a Sibelius-sceptic like me, and that’s because this time the conductor and orchestra were definitely on the same hymn-sheet.

****1