Tim Homfray visits London’s Royal Festival Hall for the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony on 26 November 2023
James Ehnes appeared at this afternoon concert as a replacement for pianist Daniil Trifonov, and the less-than-capacity audience heard instead a remarkable performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. With Ehnes, remarkable always seems to come as standard, but he still gave a masterclass in what can be done with a violin. After the brisk opening he produced some gossamer playing, fluent and free, and built steadily through melodies and technical fireworks alike. The second subject was sumptuous, growing organically from quiet simplicity to soaring rapture and onward to the great orchestral tutti. The staccato semiquaver variant of the opening theme, capricious and charming, was immaculate in all its varieties of bowing, and the cadenza was finely shaped, both brilliant and musically captivating.
The second-movement Canzonetta was eloquent, expressive and moving, aided by some beautiful contributions from clarinet and flute. As marked, Ehnes played with a mute throughout (which is not to be taken for granted – why do some fiddle players think they know better than the composer?). The finale combined dynamism, drama and precision. Afterwards Ehnes played Ysaÿe’s Third Solo Sonata in the best virtuoso encore style, compelling and viscerally exciting.
The Philharmonia with Paavo Järvi, who had been fine partners to Ehnes, went on to give an impressive account of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony in E flat minor (surely a key only a pianist could love).