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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 9

James Ehnes and the Heifetz connection

by Lucie Renaud / June 1, 2001

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The doors of the international music world seem to be opening for Canadian violinist James Ehnes, winner of one of this year's Juno awards for his recording of Bach sonatas and partitas. In the circumstances, it was only natural for Denis Brott to again invite the young violinist, who will be 25 this year, again to this year's special edition of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, devoted to violinist extraordinaire Jascha Heifetz.


The press has made much of the fact that Ehnes began studying the violin at the age of four under the attentive eyes of his father, who played trumpet, and mother, a dancer. But the immense talent of this artist goes far beyond simply being a child prodigy. Ehnes remembers how important recordings were in his childhood-first and foremost those of the great violinists, but also those of the piano and orchestral repertoires.


“I wore out several Kreisler recordings. I also listened to Itzhak Perlmann and Michael Raven cassettes, and my teacher was crazy about Heifetz,” Ehnes remembers. “The great violinists didn't make detours to Brandon [Manitoba]! Recordings were essential to my artistic development. Perhaps, one day, my own recordings will influence other people. I think they are a good reflection of what I do and what I am as an artist.”


Ehnes doesn't spend as much time listening to recordings now that he has the repertoire at his fingertips. “As I discovered the repertoire,” he says, “I developed my own ideas. Even though I continue to have immense respect for the great violinists of the past and present, I need to have enough confidence in my own ability, and to be absolutely sure that I produce the sound exactly the way I conceive it. When other artists play-even if their performance is wonderful-it's not my perception of the work.”


Respecting the composer

Nevertheless, despite his spirited comments, Ehnes feels it is essential to respect the composer's intentions and to give the music all it deserves. He is a perfectionist to the tip of his bow and admits that he can become very intense during recording sessions. “The process must be continually renewed,” he says. “There must be the enthusiasm, otherwise I will give it up. For me, it's unacceptable, if not irresponsible toward the public, to sell a CD for $20 when the artist hasn't given himself totally to the performance.”


Ehnes was delighted when Denis Brott asked him to play some of the works immortalized by the great Heifetz. “Heifetz is the king-there's no other word for it!” he says fervently. “He had such an influence on twentieth-century music, not only because of his talent as a violinist and his extraordinary musicality, but because he was exactly the right person at the right moment. During the golden age of recording he was at the height of his artistry. He made a number of recordings that have become reference works for all violinists. They owe it to themselves to study his style, his technique, his incredible mastery of the instrument, and his unique musical concentration. Heifetz's musical personality was so powerful that it takes barely five seconds to recognize one of his performances. He breathes life into everything he plays while remaining true to the composer. It's a totally unique experience.”


Asked if there was one particular recording that he felt represented the quintessence of Heifetz's art, Ehnes immediately suggested a recording from the 1930s, an arrangement of the second movement of Ravel's Sonatine that must be less than three minutes long. “I myself would probably never play this arrangement,” he says, “but Heifetz's version reveals an amazing beauty. It's totally concentrated. You can play this recording and say, ‘This is Heifetz,' to someone, and they'll understand what you mean right away.”


A number of items from the violin repertoire were popularized by Heifetz, “the violinist of the century,” as one astute promoter put it-a slogan that caught on at the time, and has proven true with the passing years. The Montreal Chamber Music Festival will give music lovers several of the now classic selections as interpreted by musicians of the current generation. These violinists have no intention of stepping into Heifetz's enormous shoes. Their aim is to celebrate some of the works that Heifetz loved.


Ehnes will have the opportunity of playing, within a single evening, Chausson's Concert Opus 21 and Richard Strauss's Sonata, the latter recorded two or three times by Heifetz, who was a lifelong promoter of this work. For Ehnes, it is a joy to work with this music, which he has loved since his teens. “It's an intensely emotional work, from start to finish,” he states. “The range of feeling is incredible-a veritable Russian mountain. He goes from the most complete intimacy to the most extreme exuberance, from the tiniest pianissimo to the most rousing fortissimo. It's a highly virtuoso work for the two instrumentalists, and it gives real pleasure to both the performers and the public.” He will perform with Wendy Chen (they have already done two recordings on Analekta), whose sensitive playing will no doubt contribute to the audience's enthusiasm.


Shared traits

Heifetz and Ehnes have more than one thing in common. Both are perfectionists, although it's hard to imagine the charming and easy-going Ehnes being the artistic tyrant that several artists have discovered in Heifetz. They are both undeniably masters of the instrument-in Ehnes's case, a magnificent 1715 “Ex Marsick” Stradivarius worth over a million dollars, lent by the Fulton Collection. Ehnes has been subjected to growing paeans of praise of the kind that finally isolated Heifetz from the rest of humanity. For the moment, the young violinist seems to be taking these in his stride and has kept his disarming simplicity. Both violinists obviously share an affinity for the pyrotechnics and poetic sweep of Fritz Kreisler, who for some years shared the world stage with Heifetz. In fact, Ehnes's next recording date for Analekta will be devoted to Kreisler. “The works are gems,” says Ehnes. “They capture the intensity of the moment, a stolen instant, an instant in history.”


More than anything else, however, Heifetz and Ehnes share a consuming passion for their instrument and music in general. It goes beyond time and fashion. “I think it's a complete waste of time to categorize music,” says Ehnes. “You can find marvellous musical works-interesting, profound, or amusing-in all periods and styles. We have the luxury of having our pick of composers over the centuries, and of discovering our Beethovens, Mozarts, and Bachs. You must remember that for each Beethoven symphony, a phenomenal amount of bad music was written. I have confidence in the future of music. It is too important for too many people and it will always be important enough to survive. The responsibility lies with the performers.” Doubtless the name of Ehnes, like that of Heifetz, will continue to be heard by an entire generation of enlightened music lovers on concert platforms all over the world. •


James Ehnes will perform on three evenings during the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. See our music calendar for details.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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