Once in a while you come across a special treat, a product of exceptional originality, superbly executed, and you wonder why no one has done this before. If you love violin or viola, this set falls most definitely into that category. So sit up and take notice.
It is an exploration of one of the world's greatest collections of stringed instruments, few in number but of unparalleled quality, gathered together over the years by David Fulton of Seattle, Washington. Canadian virtuoso James (Jimmy) Ehnes has spent years getting to know these 12 instruments. One of them, the "Marsick" Stradivarius, is the violin he plays regularly. The collection comprises 9 violins and 3 violas, plus a collection of equally fine bows. Six of the violins were made by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), one is by Pietro Guarneri or Peter of Mantua (1655-1720) and two by Giuseppe ‘delGesu' Guarneri (1695-1745).
Ehnes brings us performances on each instrument – two each for the nine violins, one each for the three violas. Each work is carefully selected to showcase the particular virtues of the instrument featured. Seven of those pieces are by De Falla, in arrangements by Paul Kochanski and Fritz Kreisler, with works by Elgar, Cyril Scott, Dinicu, Ravel, Wieniawski, Sibelius, Moszkowski, Kreisler, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Arthur Benjamin and Felicien David making up the balance, with fine support from accompanist Eduard Laurel.
But we're just getting started. Ehnes proceeds to record an excerpt from Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy nine times, once on each instrument, so you can compare them all in the same repertory. The three violas are also showcased in an extended excerpt from Harold in Italy, by Berlioz. The Bruch and the Berlioz are the violinist's standard choices for trying out a new instrument, offering as they do a good workout for a wide range of pitch, voice and attack.
Ehnes has spared himself no pains here. He feels he owes it to the listener to play only the most technically challenging music, so you can judge the quality of each instrument in full flight. He has combined technical difficulty with music of great variety and high musicality, so that this disc becomes not the academic exercise it might easily be, but a splendid recital that can be thoroughly enjoyed from the programming and performance points of view.
Is Ehnes the world's greatest virtuoso? Arguably he is. He's certainly way up there amongst the brightest lights as a concert soloist, although he is perhaps not quite at the level of Vengerov, sadly not playing the violin. What's superhuman about his virtuosity is his ability to switch between viola and violin, and to adapt so wonderfully to each of these superb instruments so as to bring out its finest qualities. His direct playing has passion, superb dexterity, exquisite phrasing and wonderful projection. He is fully persuasive on every track, a revelation in the De Falla, and makes me impatient to hear him with full orchestra in the Berlioz and Bruch.
To complete the package, we have a superb booklet, written by Ehnes, which proceeds to describe the unique attributes and history of each instrument, and to describe the place in history of each of the instrument makers – Pietro Guarneri (Peter of Mantua), Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesu', GasparoBertolotti (Gasparo da Sola), Andrea Guarneri and Giuseppe Guadagnini. Even the bow makers are given their due.
Since this is a document of a unique collection at a particular point in time, it was decided to pull out all the stops and record the event for posterity not just for CD but also visually on DVD. This DVD is included in the lavish package. It includes all the music from the CD plus extensive interviews with Ehnes interspersed between the pieces. They went to great lengths to record the instruments under appropriate lighting and taken from all angles. It's hard for me to come up with any way you could improve on this production. ThisCD/DVD HOMAGE has won the 2009 JUNO for Classical Album of The Year: Solo or Chamber Ensemble. It thoroughly deserves the accolade.