Two fine Canadian artists collaborated Thursday afternoon in their first-ever appearance on a stage together. A momentous occasion. But what, in effect, we were presented with at Koerner Hall for the final concert of the season of the Women's Musical Club of Toronto was actually not so much a dual recital as two solo recitals presented at the same time. However, as the recitalists were superstar violinist James Ehnes and superstar baritone Russell Braun, with help from pianist Carolyn Maule, the results were nothing short of spectacular.
That's not to ignore the times during the afternoon when the two artists and friends performed together. Rather, it's to note that the power of the concert appeared most forcefully during those gorgeous moments when each artist stood centre stage alone, with our focus entirely on them and their musical power.
This was especially true of Ehnes, who stunned the audience – there's no other word for it – with the yin and yang of solo violin playing: the profound Bach Chaconne from his Second Partita, and some of Paganini's glittering Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 24. Johannes Brahms considered the Bach Chaconne the single greatest piece of music ever written, basically a set of variations on a continuing bass line, amazing on a dozen different levels, starting with the fact that Bach allows you to hear a bass line at all in this treble instrument.
The Bach Chaconne is one of those pieces that makes me sad for all my friends who aren't into classical music, who don't get to experience this form of art. Mysteriously, magically, mystically, this continuing set of unfolding patterns is the original stairway to heaven, a journey into a transcendent sphere of understanding that only music can produce. A physical as well as emotional challenge for its performer, it was given an assured, balanced, deep performance by Ehnes, perfectly in tune with the music, as though his whole body was the instrument from which this sound was forthcoming.
If the Chaconne is of another world, the Paganini Caprices are firmly of this one, showcasing virtuosity more or less for its own sake, relinquishing the power of the depths for the flash of the surface. Part of me has always resisted the showiness of the Paganini Caprices, as a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
But the world needs flash as well as enlightenment, and Ehnes, with the Bach and the Paganini, provided both. The involuntary "Wow!" that escaped the mouth of one of the members of the audience in the middle of Ehnes's Caprices was better than a thousand words I could write as a review of his amazing performance.
Faced with his friend's performances, Braun had his work cut out for him on Thursday, and he was more than up to the challenge. A dramatic, tortured performer, sensitive and heroic by turns, Braun turned his beautiful baritone to best effect, perhaps, in a song cycle written especially for this concert by Canadian composer John Estacio. With both Maule and Ehnes providing accompaniment, Braun plumbed all the emotion in these quite dramatic, almost operatic love songs, to texts by playwright John Murrell, Sondheimesque in places, providing a wonderful canvas for Braun's emotional range.
A version of that same range was present in Braun and Maule's reading of Beethoven's An die Ferne Geliebte, perhaps the first-ever linked set of songs, in which Braun displayed both the beauty of his voice and the subtlety of his interpretive skills.
The concert ended with a set of songs inspired by the poetry of A. E Housman, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Samuel Barber. Again, although all three performers participated in the songs, this was primarily Braun's show, as he focused in very deliberately on the bittersweet quality of these tales of love won, and lost; youth betrayed; ideals dissipated. His command of tone, dynamics and sound was impeccable throughout.
It's become commonplace for us to note how many fine Canadian performers fill concert halls and operatic theatres the world over these days. However, it's another to hear the art that propelled them to those heights in such original programming. James Ehnes and Russell Braun left us in little doubt on Thursday afternoon about the source of their fame. They are both musicians of the first rank.