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ARAM KHACHATURIAN - Violin Concerto (1940) - James Ehnes (Violin) - Melbourne Symphony Orchestra - Mark Wigglesworth (Conductor) - 880040412120 - Released: April 2014 - Onyx Classics ONYX4121

Ask a group of people which composer's violin concerto is their favorite, and most would say Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky or Bruch. Others would vote for Brahms or Beethoven, while less would suggest Sibelius, Barber or even Korngold. (Mine is William Schuman). But I'd be willing to wager that no one would mention Aram Khachaturian. That's truly unfortunate because it certainly deserves higher esteem and greater mainstream recognition than it's been getting. It has all the earmarks and qualities associated with great violin concertos. The technical sparkle to showcase the musician's abilities and the lyrical passion to highlight the interpreter's powers of expression. Violinist James Ehnes has nothing to worry about here. He delivers the goods on both counts and then some. From the Armenian folk-inspired lines of the first movement to the lively and boisterous final movement that sounds very much like a Russian counterpart of an American hoedown, James Ehnes has every pitch inflection covered. But where he really shines, is in this concerto's slow middle movement Andante sostenuto. I had mentioned this before about his recording of the Tchaikovsky (reviewed here), but Ehnes has a way, especially in slow and expressive passages, to darken the tone of his violin, making it sound closer to a viola. And this of course adds greatly to the sorrowful effect of the music itself, which leads to an emotively powerful climax near the end, very reminiscent of Khachaturian's own famous Adagio from his ballet Spartacus. This Concerto for Violin in D minor, despite the fact that it was written during the war, is generally sunny and upbeat. It was dedicated to and given its world première the very same year by David Oistrakh. Those of you who notice such things will immediately have spotted the similarities between the pose of James Ehnes on the cover compared with the original cover photo of the Oistrakh recording on EMI. Good of the people at Onyx to have given this cover the look of an aged photograph, therefore reinforcing the effect.

The fillers (if they can be called that) on this CD, are the String Quartets Nos. 7 and 8 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is the first recording venture by the Ehnes Quartet, an ensemble formed only four years ago. These quartets serve here to reinforce the culture clash between Russian composers experiencing the Soviet era through different mind-sets. I would have preferred to hear the Ehnes Quartet in an all Shostakovich disc of four of his best quartets, but nonetheless, these are strong interpretations that may entice listeners who don't know Shostakovich that well to want to hear more of his music.

Jean-Yves Duperron - May 2014