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James Ehnes on violin obsession and existential crisis

Violinist James Ehnes. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

My latest interview for Cozio, with violinist James Ehnes, has just gone live, so please go and visit. He had so much to say about his experience playing some of the finest violins ever made that I couldn’t fit all of it into the interview there, so I saved some of the more philosophical questions for here.

I’ve previously made the point that I don’t think everyone deserves to play a Strad and that in my experience there are many people playing them who definitely don't. How this should be decided is a tricky matter – I hypothesised on some of the possibilities in this blog. I didn’t come to a conclusion, but I did write that there is no doubt in my mind that someone like James Ehnes deserves to play any instrument he wants, such is his talent, and his quest for colour and sound, which takes him into the furthest possibilities of any instrument he plays.

One of the surprising points he made is that this quest is actually quite exhausting. For him, a good Strad has so many possibilities that he feels it constantly challenges him to be a better player. The down side of this is that it brings players up against the limits of their own capacities. He explained: ‘At a certain point certain instruments have limitations and for some players that’s fine. I’ve spoken to friends and colleagues who enjoy having parameters. They know how far they can go in certain directions, in terms of colours or dynamic range, and where, if you push too far, the instrument won’t take it any more. They are happy to know where those boundaries are and to work within them because psychologically it can be liberating. It’s not easy constantly to be wondering if you can be playing better than you are.’ It never occurred to me that a good violin can be the cause of an existential crisis!

Indeed, ultimately, the possibilities of a violin are inextricably tied up with the player’s own imagination, although a great instrument allows them to make their ideas real. Ehnes explained, ‘The sound is only ever going to be what the player wants. If the player can’t come up with that sonic ideal then the violin’s never going to make it happen. That’s the mark of a great instrument: when a player looks for a sound, or a million different sounds, sooner or later with a great instrument they’re going to find a way to work it out. It might be difficult and awkward, but it’ll be there. There are some things that are more difficult to do on my violin, but I’ve yet to have an idea in my mind of what sound I’m trying to make that I haven’t sooner or later figured out how to make.’

Ehnes admitted to being obsessed with trying instruments, but described the educational value of this process – which is advice that must surely hold true, whatever level of instrument you’re looking for, classic or modern: ‘I made friends with various people in the business and I was always going in and out of the shops seeing what people had, what was new. Someone would put in a new bass bar and I’d hack away on it for a week to break it in. It was a real education and that turned out to be very valuable in that by the time an instrument like the “Marsick” came along I knew what I was looking for. I know people who find a violin when they’re 20 and fall in love with it and 10 years later they say, “This isn’t the right violin for me, but it was right at the time”. I’m proud that all these years later I know why I gravitated to this violin and feel confident that it’s the right one for me.’ Although I’d be interested to now how violin dealers and luthiers feel about players constantly doing this. I imagine that it can be a positive thing for both, but may be seen by some as quite time-consuming. I’d be interested to know what experience people here have with this.

Ehnes also described beautifully one of the special qualities of the best violins, by reference to a favourite opera star: ‘There’s a certain facet of projection that is difficult to define. It’s not necessarily volume. I remember going to the Met Opera when I was 15. My mother had bought tickets in the last aisle of the last balcony, as far away from Der Rosenkavalier as you’re ever going to be. It was beautiful but for a lot of it the singers seemed to be shouting as loud as they could and it was still inaudible. Then Luciano Pavarotti came on and it was the most amazing thing. It didn’t sound like he was singing louder, but he sounded close, as if he was just speaking to you. I also remember as a little boy hearing Dmitry Sitkovetsky playing the Beethoven Concerto on his Strad. We were sitting near the back of the hall and he had a similar effect: at the end of the cadenza in the first movement he was playing very softly but the sound spoke and carried like a clear whisper. It’s a quality that’s hard to find and hard to define.’

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

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