Natasha Gauthier review: Ehnes plays Beethoven concerto with natural nobility

James Ehnes performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto with NACO Saturday.

By Natasha Gauthier

After weeks of exciting, inclusive truly diverse programming, NACO can be forgiven for presenting one ultra-traditional, all-Beethoven concert. Especially with the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birthday coming up on Dec. 16.

Saturday night’s livestream featured two works from Beethoven’s “heroic” period: the Violin Concerto, written in 1806, and the Seventh Symphony, composed six years later. The soloist was NACO artist-in-residence James Ehnes, a musician who never seems to run out of things to say about Beethoven.

Ehnes’ Beethoven always feels intimate, conversational and deeply empathetic. Even in a warhorse concerto he’s played hundreds of times, he manages to sound fresh and spontaneous. His playing has a natural nobility that is especially well suited to the serene expanse of the second movement. He doesn’t hold back from using his enormous dynamic range to give even the most unadorned phrases shape and dimension. He can turn on the merry charm for the finale, but it’s never vulgar or overdone. Alexander Shelley supported Ehnes with majestically sustained, endless legato from the orchestra, anchored in an opulent, weighty sound. 

The dignity of Ehnes’ performance carried over into Symphony No. 7, which Shelley took at a less frenzied pace than I’ve heard him choose in the past. I appreciated the extra space and breath woven into the tapestry of the music, which was achieved without sacrificing energy or forward motion. The woodwinds brought their A game to the third movement trio.

There was a slight lag between the sound and the video in Saturday’s streaming — just enough to drive you bananas if you were paying attention. If you want to give yourself an aneurysm, try watching the timpanist in the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh when the picture is a half-second behind the audio.  

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.