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James Ehnes and Twelve of His Closest Friends

available at Amazon
James Ehnes, Homage (DVD and CD), with pianist Eduard Laurel

(released on December 16, 2008)
Onyx 4038
David L. Fulton, like many brilliant mathematicians, has a gift for music, just as many musicians have mathematical minds. While Dr. Fulton was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago he played the violin in the university orchestra, even serving as concertmaster. As an avocation, he has turned to collecting exceptional violins -- especially those made by the Cremonese luthiers, Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari -- restoring them and playing them or loaning them to extraordinary players to keep them in good shape. Fulton has loaned the "Marsick" Stradivarius, from 1715, to the talented Canadian violinist James Ehnes, who won a Grammy in 2008 for his recording of violin concertos by Barber, Korngold, and Walton, for the past several years. In fact, Fulton became interested in purchasing the "Marsick" Strad when he learned that Ehnes's plan to acquire it had fallen through.

Ehnes, whom we last heard in the area at a 2007 concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, recorded this recital of demanding morsels of the virtuoso violin repertory on the Marsick Strad and eleven other extraordinary instruments from the Fulton Collection. He plays on six Stradivarius violins (La Pucelle, 1709; Baron d'Assignies, 1713; Marsick 1715; Baron Knoop, 1715; Duke of Alba, 1719; Sassoon, 1733), one Pietro Guarneri (Shapiro, 1698), and two del Gesù (King Joseph, 1737; Lord Wilton, 1742), as well as three violas, a Gasparo da Salò from around 1560, a Guarnerius (Count Vitale ex-Landau, 1676), and a Guadagnini (Rolla, 1793) -- of the latter, violas have never sounded so good. He matches them with some of the world's finest bows, which Dr. Fulton also collects, made by François-Xavier Tourte and Dominique Peccatte.

Violinists will drool in envy, and music nerds of all kinds will go weak in the knees, but at a slightly high import price, this set is not likely to be of great interest except to collectors with a specialized interest. One can hear James Ehnes play much more interesting repertoire elsewhere. The program is mostly encore pieces, the sort of selection that would not hold one's musical interest over a long period, each miniature designed only to tickle one's delight in virtuosity or soupy long line for a few minutes. Either one is going to hear the instrument's ability to spin out a smooth ribbon of melody (the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Greensleeves), or its response to rapid bowing or pizzicato (Bazzini's Ronde des Lutins), or exploitation of the extreme ends of its register (or Wieniawski's fourth étude-caprice), and so on. For the ultimate violin geek, there is an accompanying DVD that shows Ehnes in action, gives trading-card information on the instruments and shows them in close-up (violin porn, if you will), and records Ehnes's observations about each one. For a truly esoteric experience, the nine violins and three violas are stacked up against one another, as Ehnes plays the same one-minute excerpt (from Bruch's Scottish Fantasy for the former and Berlioz's Harold in Italy for the latter) on each instrument.

78'39" (DVD, 100'+)

James Ehnes joins the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra again this weekend, for performances of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto (October 2 to 4 at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Hall -- the Strathmore performance was last night). The rest of the program, at least, is not dreary routine, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra paired with the Harmonia ensemble playing examples of traditional central European folk music.

See Tim Smith's review of the BSO concert with James Ehnes (BSO explores folk roots in works by Bartok and Tchaikovsky, October 3) and his interview with Ehnes (James Ehnes and BSO join up for Tchaikovsky, October 1) for the Baltimore Sun.

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