This film featured in one of our video podcasts. You can watch our latest podcast here.
We also caught up with James Ehnes in Bedford in 2007 for an exclusive interview, including a 'guided tour' of Elgar's violin concerto which James performed with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis across the country during our Elgar 150th Anniversary celebrations.
Listen to the interview using the media player to the right, or read the full interview transcript.
Tell me a little about the Bruch Concerto
The Bruch is definitely one of my favourites, I think it must be one of every violinist’s favourites. It’s just so beautiful and enjoyable to play and I of course, like most players, learnt it at quite a young age. It was one of the first major concertos that I learnt, so it’s also like coming back to visit an old friend every time I play it. It’s always a great pleasure, I’ve never got tired of this piece. I think it’s one of the few pieces that I could play over and over and still enjoy it very much, it’s really just, kind of perfect!
So not too much of a nostalgia trip then? There’s more to it than that?
It’s definitely not just “oh the Bruch, I've done the Bruch a million times”, it’s the type of piece that is certainly very challenging no matter how many times you’ve done it or how well you think you know it, it’s always a new fresh challenge when you pick it up again. It’s certainly been enjoyable preparing it for this concert, it’s been about a year since the last time I played it, which is a pretty long time compared to how long usually goes between performances of this piece.
Moving on to the Elgar concerto, you’re coming over again in May and you’re playing the Elgar concerto as part of our Elgar 2007 season, and you’re going to Southend, Cardiff, Basingstoke, Bury-St-Edmunds, Oxford and London (twice), that seems like a bit of a challenge?
It’s going to be particularly challenging to do that with the Elgar concerto, as it’s a very physically demanding and very tiring piece, but I’m not too concerned about that, it’s not like I have all that much else to do! But the mental and the emotional stamina of it is going to be a fairly unique challenge. The Elgar is such an emotionally intense and draining piece that it’s going to be important for all of us to ensure the last performance is absolutely as vital and as fresh as the first. But that being said, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, because I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Philharmonia a number of times and it is always a magical experience for me and I could say the same thing about working with Sir Andrew Davis, every time we’ve worked together it’s been certainly very inspiring for me and I look forward to it very much. The Elgar is such a miraculously wonderful piece and not one that comes around all that often for me. I’m used to doing it once or twice a season so to do seven in a week is going to be a real privilege!
It’s a very different piece to the Bruch isn’t it? Not a million miles apart in terms of when it was written, but the world has changed in the intervening period and the piece reflects that somehow?
Certainly the Elgar and the Bruch are as you say, worlds apart, of course the first thing is that the Elgar is about twice as long. But one similarity you could point out is that both are a little unusual in the form, the Bruch is well known for it’s unusual slow introduction, in fact the whole first movement doesn’t fit the mould, whereas in the Elgar the whole last movement doesn’t fit the mould. But that being said, they’re both very personal, very emotional works, but they manifest themselves in very different ways.
How does your take on the Elgar come about, what are your influences?
Well, it’s difficult to say what my influences were or are on the Elgar concerto, I think it’s a piece that one has to really digest from within, there are a lot of questions as to how it actually all works. The pacing of the piece is so crucial, I think it’s definitely a piece for me that benefited from a long digestive process, if that makes sense because, I think there’s no other piece in the repertoire that you can learn that can prepare you to perform the Elgar concerto neither violinistically or certainly musically. I think there have been some great performances of the concerto over the years certainly some wonderful recordings that during my learning process I found very inspiring – the recording with Elgar conducting, Yehudi Menuhin is of course a well-known one, and the Jascha Heifetz recording…
I was going to come onto recordings because this is one of the first concertos where recordings of composer conducting are available, so is that something you refer to or do you listen to it and put it away for a while, and then come back to it?
I think with Elgar’s recorded performances, it’s a good idea to listen to it then it’s probably a good idea not to listen to it all that closely. I think music means a very different thing to a composer than it may to another performer and I think that it’s one of those strange but true things that I think quite often composers are not the most across the board successful interpreters of their own music. I don’t mean to say that I don’t think Elgar’s performances of his own works aren’t great, I do, but I think that for example his recording of the violin concerto with Yehudi Menuhin, if someone were today to even give a live performance that was that not together, it would be run out of town!
It was a different world wasn’t it?
It really was, it was very much a different world and the piece had a different place in the public’s consciousness.
I was going to ask how this piece works for you, as a Canadian, when you say British perspective and British treasure, do you find that something you’ve got to think about or do you take the notes off the page?
Well I do think that more than other composers maybe, Elgar’s music does have a type of Victorian British identity that for me it has been I think quite beneficial to not only have spent a fair amount of time in the UK over the years but to have heard and experienced and seen Elgar performances in this country, I think that when one sees a great Elgar performance in this country the way that it is experienced by the audience is some what unique; the way that a piece like Copland’s Appalachian Spring is going to mean something very different in Berlin than it is in Washington D.C. It’s not that it’s not going to be enjoyed as much, but it has a different reference. I do think that the Elgar concerto is best understood through somewhat of an understanding of British history, of British society. It’s not necessarily a society that exists today, so I guess I would say that I’ve been a little bit more deeply interested in the subtext of this work, than many concertos that I think stand alone. There are some tricky things in the score in terms of how to interpret things that are marked differently on the solo part than in the orchestral score or vice-versa. I think it is useful to have the experience of working with orchestras that have understood this idiom for a long time because every composer I think has their own way of using notation and a fermata (pause) in Elgar does not mean the same thing as a fermata in Beethoven, and does not mean the same thing as a fermata in Stravinsky. So with things of that nature it’s definitely helpful to understand Elgar from the British perspective of British performers.
How will you cope with the different venues and playing in six different acoustics within a week with this piece?
Yeah that will be an extremely interesting thing playing in all those different halls because it’s pretty crucial to get your balances well thought out and executed and of course also so much of the timing of the Elgar is dependent on how notes carry in a hall and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we have some variation in the overall length of the piece depending on the acoustic. I think that one thing that works well purely by coincidence with the Elgar is that one can learn an awful lot about the acoustics of the place you’re playing from the very first violin entrance. I have played the Elgar in halls where I’ve had no time on stage before the performance and the first violin entrance, this little cadenza figure is always like “oh ok so this is how it sounds here”, and then you get an idea for the rest of it.
James, thank you so much for talking to us today
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