It isn’t every day that you bump into a world-class virtuoso violinist. I bumped into one, James Ehnes as it happens, and in the literal rather than figurative sense, only minutes before he was to star in the CBSO’s concert celebrating the Ballets Russes in 1913 – a programme that brought together the delightful tranquillity of Mussorgsky’s prelude to Khovanshchina, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, Debussy’s Jeux and finally Stravinsky’s The Firebird suite.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

Ehnes is a favourite on the Birmingham concert scene and around the world. His recordings have won a great many awards and his live performances are similarly revered. With a full recital schedule, demand for Ehnes remains high as far afield as the Czech Republic and San Francisco. Tonight’s compelling performance of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto – an extremely challenging piece for even the most talented performer – is evidence enough of his technical prowess. Without a single slip, Ehnes effectively captured the typically understated emotional impetus of Sibelius’ concerto. Ehnes gave a suitably unmelodramatic and restrained, yet stylish and deft performance. Not until the very end, with the entry of the theme musicologist Donald Tovey aptly described as a “polonaise for polar bears”, does the orchestra break forth, allowing the music to swell to an impassioned climax – a fantastic release after the preceding restraint.

Ehnes’ performance followed a slightly tentative, but nonetheless pleasant prelude to Khovanshchina. Rather than Rimsky-Korsakov’s initial, colourful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s prelude, Shostakovich’s 1958 reworking of the piece (an unusual choice given the concert’s title?) was performed. What did come across in this performance was the feeling of awakening. In the hazy, sleepy opening the CBSO sensitively portrayed an image of dawn. This opening did not fully manage to develop, however. Despite conductor Simone Young’s exhortations, there seemed to be some initial resistance to the inflections she attempted to give the music. Young is a conductor who clearly lives, eats and breathes the music and her delivery was charismatic. Perhaps most well known for her work on Wagner’s operas, Young’s style is arguably more suited to the Sturm und Drang of Germanic composition. A precise and pretty performance, even if it was not the one I expected to hear.

Debussy’s Jeux (1912, premièred 1913), one of his most radical works, followed the interval. A &Ldquo;poème dansé” based around a game of tennis that is really a game of seduction, Jeux is rarely performed as a ballet, yet its inclusion in tonight’s programme served to question the efficacy of ballet music performed in concert without the movement. Like a lot of doodles with no unifying threat, the structure of the piece is virtually impossible to recognise without a unifying visual element – the ballet or a score. Although the execution was precise and musical, I was left feeling that there was something missing – a gap that I believe the choreography would have filled.

The influence of Stravinsky on Debussy’s Jeux is apparent and so the juxtaposition of Debussy’s ballet with one by the younger composer seems a natural choice. I wonder if it was constraints of time that decided that the 1919 revision of the Firebird suite was to follow, however. Surely The Rite of Spring (1913) or even Petrushka (1911) would have been more suitable companions to Jeux, both in terms of similarity of musical language and their composition dates – both closer to the so-far deceptive title “Ballets Russes: 1913” than the Firebird suite. Despite its incongruous appearance in the concert programme, though, this was truly the highlight of the evening. The CBSO pulled off all the dramatic highs and lows required in Stravinsky’s beautiful ballet and the extremes of dynamic and emotion contrasted with the earlier pieces. An excellent conclusion to the evening.

***11