“The name Stradivarius had an air of magic to me.” Virtuoso violinist James Ehnes’ statement manages to capture the air of reverence which underpinned Friday’s Music at Oxford concert. The gala marked the opening of the UK’s first Stradivarius exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and two violins from the exhibition were on temporary release for the evening. Alongside Ehnes’ own “Marsick” instrument of 1715, he played the 1666 “Serdet” – the earliest instrument on display (pictured left) – and the 1711 “Parke” (pictured right).

The Serdet and Parke violins © Beare Violins Ltd
The Serdet and Parke violins
© Beare Violins Ltd

In his prefatory conversation with violin experts Charles Beare and Sir Curtis Price, Ehnes revealed that he had in fact performed upon no fewer than 93 Stradivari violins. In order to demonstrate the differences in tone between the three instruments, he performed the opening to Elgar’s Violin Concerto upon each. Although all of the instruments boasted the focus and directness typical of a Stradivarius, tonal differences were apparent, with the rich and dark tone of the Marsick (a product of Stradivari’s “Golden Age”) particularly noticeable when compared to the warmer and sunnier Serdet.

After these demonstrations, Ehnes showcased more virtuoso works, from the 18th century to the 20th. His performance of the Preludio from J.S. Bach’s Partita no. 3 upon the Serdet was reminiscent of driving a sports car: the instrument was responsive in the extreme, switching between different moods at the slightest touch. Ehnes executed the technical challenges of the piece with ease, working the intricate passagework into a spun-out thread with touches of rubato.

Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin Op. 115 saw Ehnes utilise each of the instruments for a different movement, beginning with the Parke, continuing with the Serdet and finishing with the Marsick. Ehnes brought a sense of poise and elegance to the tongue-in-cheek elements of the opening movement, making use of the instrument’s potential for tonal nuance to reinforce structural demarcations. The contrasting second movement demanded a more lyrical approach, and Ehnes drew a honeyed, vibrato-laden sound from the 1666 instrument. Ehnes’ tonal nuance in response to the changes of mood once again lent a sense of drama to the performance. This was particularly the case in the boisterous final movement: the Marsick became a vehicle for impassioned fireworks.

Ehnes’ inquisitive performance of Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 brought the first half to its conclusion. From the luxuriant octave passage to the fizzing passagework, Ehnes lent a sense of freshness and spontaneity to this much-heard piece. As in the previous pieces, he gave the impression that he was caressing the instruments. His admiration for them became even more apparent when he returned for a curtain call: before performing the third movement of Bach’s Sonata no. 3 on the Parke, Ehnes joked that the encore was chiefly for his pleasure.

The second half saw La Serenissima take centre stage to perform works from the era of Stradivari. The group gave Francesco Navara’s Sinfonia à 5 in C an energetic rendition, emphasising the dance-like rhythms. The mood changed for the A minor Sinfonia, with the players highlighting Navara’s harmonic spice and lingering over his appoggiaturas. The air of pathos did not dampen the group’s vigour, and they certainly let loose with Navara’s fervent outbursts.

The A minor mood continued with Giuseppe Valentini’s Concerto. The individual string lines were well defined throughout, and the players managed to imbue the sequential passages with expressive interest. At points, the four-strong continuo overbalanced the upper strings, but the robust bass certainly helped to create a sense of propulsion. Director and violinist Adrian Chandler was not afraid to set blistering tempi, and the Presto saw fingers flying over fingerboards (although a couple of players felt slightly behind the beat). The ensemble definitely had an ear for the theatrical: antiphonal passages were urgent, and the players embraced a wide spectrum of moods.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in D major, “Il Grosso Mogul” maintained this sense of drama, and the group brought a vibrant sound to the bright D major (although this occasionally flagged in quieter moments). The dialogue between the players once again created a sense of dynamism. Chandler’s solo passages in the second movement captured the sense of exotic mystery underpinning the concerto, although his playing lost tone and strayed flatwards at points in his third-movement cadenza. Despite this, the group maintained the buoyant mood of the performance, dispatching Vivaldi’s extravagant flourishes in the finale with élan.

This was a thoughtfully curated and informative evening with some stellar performances, and a fitting way to mark the opening of the Ashmolean’s exhibition.