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Music review: Sir Andrew Davis conducts James Ehnes in Berlioz and Beethoven

11.13.14
Sir Andrew Davis
The Sydney Morning Herald

By Clive O'Connell

Half that title is correct: MSO chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis did direct the splendid Canadian violinist in works by Berlioz but James Ehnes had quit the scene by the time Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 enjoyed yet another airing before an enthusiastic house. Juxtaposing both composers made a sort of sense, mainly to see how the French master-orchestrator owed Beethoven in dramatic breadth and – striking on this occasion – rhythmic inexorability.

Much was made of Ehnes' playing both violin and viola on the same program but, as British critic Hans Keller noted, transferring skills between these instruments isn't that remarkable. What impressed more was the unfaltering fluency and accuracy of Ehnes' line throughout Harold in Italy, Berlioz's symphony with the string solo representing Byron's hero-wanderer. Davis urged the work to an exhilarating conclusion but the main memories from this performance came in placid moments, like the soloist's arpeggio chains on the bridge in the Pilgrim's Procession as well as his balance of resignation and self-assertion across the score's colour-rich canvas.

Reverting to violin mode, Ehnes performed Berlioz's only other work with a solo instrument, the early Reverie et caprice. Rarely-heard, it oscillates in pretty much every respect – mood, dynamic, rhythm, melodic shape – but for once it sounded near-coherent, fanciful and mobile, both solo and support working hard to expose its whimsical attractions. 

Sir Andrew gave a straightforward account of the A Major symphony, the finale particularly compelling and cleanly accomplished, with precious few blurs to mar the master's all-embracing, life-affirming vision.