The Strad Issue: January 2010
Musicians: James Ehnes (violin)
Composer: Paganini

It was a recording of the Paganini caprices that 14 years ago launched the international career of Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes, and he now revisits the score in an equally superb performance.

It is a very literal view that encompasses the prodigious demands with such apparent ease that we are almost persuaded it is not that challenging after all. Pages of double-stopping hold no fear for Ehnes, his bow dances over strings with utter precision and his left hand is seemingly incapable of creating a note of questionable intonation.

So we can forget technique and turn our attention to the work’s content, where Ehnes exposes much that is usually overlooked while we are admiring the performer’s dexterity. Tempos are never unduly rushed, with the slower sections quite spacious as he concentrates on the work’s beauty and its various tonal colours.

The result is poles apart from the improvisation and freedom found in the recent recording from Thomas Zehetmair (ECM, reviewed last month), whose daringly fast tempos and physical impact engender a white-hot atmosphere and drama that thrillingly heightens our perception of the technical difficulties involved.

Unlike the high level of reverberation given to Zehetmair, Onyx’s natural sound allows Ehnes’s ‘Marsick’ Stradivari of 1715 to sing sweetly.