Violinist James Ehnes’ inspired playing in the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra over the weekend can only be described as masterful. The golden sound that he achieved on his 1715 Stradivarius violin was stunning. In Saturday’s concert, it was equally fascinating to hear Ehnes reveal the Cincinnati connection behind his $8 million instrument.
Music director Louis Langrée concluded the Cincinnati Symphony season in Music Hall with Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven — one of the more traditional programs of the year. Music Hall was nearly sold out in each of the two concerts that I attended over the weekend.
And two of the orchestra’s retiring musicians were honored with standing ovations for their long tenures as principal players.
Ehnes, a Grammy-winning native of Manitoba, Canada, last appeared in Cincinnati in 2005. It was wonderful to become re-acquainted with his artistry.
From the explosive opening flourishes of Brahms’ Concerto in D major, his playing was brilliant and intense. But he also allowed his phrases to breathe. Nothing was rushed, and he lavished care on Brahms’ lyrical themes.
Nowhere was this so evident as in the second movement, which opens with a ravishing theme for oboe (Dwight Parry). Here, the violinist played with warmth and a big vibrato, resulting in an old-world sweetness of tone. Ehnes soared easily through the technical feats of the finale. Langrée was a fine musical partner.
On Saturday, the violinist treated listeners with a beautifully-played encore: the Largo from Bach’s Sonata No. 3. He also noted that his violin, 1715 Ex-Marsick Stradivarius, owned by the Fulton Collection and valued several years ago at $8 million, was once owned by Belgian violinist Martin Pierre Marsick.
It turns out that Marsick played the Bruch Violin Concerto on that violin in 1896 in Music Hall. So, Ehnes said, the violin “has come full circle.”
In the program’s second half, Langrée led a rewarding performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, part of his three-year Beethoven cycle. His tempos were very brisk – I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a fast scherzo movement — despite the “presto” tempo indication. The conductor illuminated its rhythms in a galvanizing sweep from the opening bars to the powerful climax of the finale.
It was a performance that showcased the orchestra in its element, and there were many excellent contributions from orchestral soloists, starting with Parry’s masterful oboe solo in the first movement. The artistry and precision by timpanist Patrick Schleker was truly memorable, punctuated by superb playing from the horns and trumpets.
The winds also were noteworthy; I would have liked more of a glowing, Viennese mood in their third-movement trio – situated as it is between the frenzied themes of the scherzo. But the musicians played with virtuosity and Langrée drove the work to an exciting finish.
The concert opened with Schumann’s Overture to “The Bride of Messina.” Langrée drew a big, robust sound from the orchestra. The piece – which has only been performed once before under Jesus Lopez-Cobos in 1990 — would have benefited from more nuance and dynamic contrast.
The orchestra honored CSO musicians Marna Street, principal viola emerita, who retires after 37 years, and William Winstead, principal bassoon, who retires after 30 years. In moving displays of appreciation, audiences this weekend stood for lengthy ovations.