Nearly everyone carries around a mental image of the famous Stradivari violins and those of the other makers from Italy's golden age of instruments, and some of us have been lucky enough to hear one of these instruments, or perhaps testimony from someone who has played one. The chance to immerse yourself in the sound of many of them, and to appreciate their individuality, is rare indeed, however. Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes offers listeners that chance here, and deserves kudos for what must have been a difficult project, both musically and logistically. He plays violins and violas from a single collection of instruments, that of former Microsoft vice president (and former University of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concertmaster) David Fulton. There are 12 instruments in all, nine violins and three violas, by Stradivari, three members of the Guarneri family, and two other builders from outside Cremona, an early example from Brescia by Gasparo Bertolotti and a late one from the Parmesan Giuseppe Guadagnini. Ehnes lets you hear each instrument two ways: first in a piece of its own, and second in "comparison tracks" in which an identical excerpt from Bruch's Scottish Fantasy (for the violins) or Berlioz's Harold in Italy (for the violas) is played on each instrument. This brings to life some of the subjective language used by Ehnes in his descriptions of the individual instruments and pretty much everywhere else they are written about. Ehnes chooses mostly standard encores for his complete performances, but they're nicely matched to the individual instruments in order to show some of their uncannier qualities; he doesn't just dwell on the remarkable gentleness and warmth of tone of which many of these instruments are capable. Hear the very first track, Antonio Bazzini's La Ronde des Lutins, for example, as the 1715 "Marsick" Stradivarius ascends into a truly chilling, almost electronic sound in the rapid upper-register passages. Nearly every track has some pleasure like that, and the engineering, done in a high school performing arts center in Microsoft's hometown of Redmond, WA, is equal to the tasks it faces here. The CD is accompanied by a DVD in which Ehnes plays and discusses the instruments in more detail. This solves the problem of what gift to get the violin lover on your list.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Suite Populaire Espagnole, for violin & piano (arr. from "Popular Spanish Songs" by Kochanski)|
|Pieces (5) for violin & piano, Op. 81|
|Souvenir d'un lieu cher, for violin & piano (or orchestra), Op. 42|
Fantasia on Greensleeves, for harp, flute & strings (arranged by R. Greaves; from the opera "Sir John In Love")
|Scottish Fantasy, for violin & orchestra, Op. 46|
|Harold en Italie (Harold in Italy), symphony for viola & orchestra, H. 68 (Op. 16)|