THERE'S a unique opportunity in Glasgow this week to see two very different sides to an artist currently at the very top of his game. The star in question is Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes.
• Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes will be taking part in the Romantic Bach season, with Donald Runnicles and the SSO. Picture: Complimentary
Not only is he appearing as concerto soloist with Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO) on Thursday (a performance of Britten's Violin Concerto that will be repeated the following night in Perth), but he will return to the City Halls on Sunday afternoon for an intimate solo recital with accompanist Andrew Armstrong.
Ehnes, 34, has been a regular concerto artist in Scotland since making his European orchestral debut with the RSNO in 1998, and the focus of his growing international reputation has inevitably been the glitzy world of the concerto circuit, including highly-acclaimed recordings of such unsung classics as the concertos of Korngold, Barber and Walton, which won him a Grammy Award in 2008.
But there is a side to his musicianship that Ehnes is eager to make better known. "Generally I like to find a balance between orchestral and solo work," he says. "Doing only concertos is a little bit one-sided, but the truth is there are usually more orchestral opportunities to be had. It's a pity that the recital market is not a little bit stronger, because it gives me a chance to show another distinctive side of my musical personality. It certainly demands a different kind of playing." This is demonstrated in his recording of Paganini's 24 Caprices which recently won him a nomination for the Canadian recording industry's soon-to-be-announced 2010 Juno awards.
This Sunday's recital is part of the Romantic Bach series promoted jointly by Glasgow's International Concert Series and BBC Radio 3. "I'm not sure what they meant by calling the series that, but I suppose it's something to do with Bach and those he later influenced," Ehnes admits. So he plans to play some Bach – the Partita in E – as well as sonatas by Schumann (the A minor) and Beethoven (the Kreuzer).
He'll also be playing the so-called "Marsick" Stradivarius, the violin he has on permanent loan from an American collection, and which he says completely fulfils his entire needs as a concert violinist, whether as orchestral soloist, or in his growing involvement as a solo recitalist and chamber musician – he takes over next year as artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival.
So maybe he's the obvious person to ask the simple question: what is it that makes a Strad a Strad?
"Every violinist is looking for something with a little difference," he says. "For me, it's the great old Italian instruments that do it, even if the prices are so obscene. We're not talking about the biggest increments of difference. To get a violin like a Strad that gives you 5 per cent more than a lesser name, you're having to pay 200 times more."
Indeed, if he actually had to buy the "Marsick" Stradivarius, he'd have to cough up around 2 million. "For some violinists the cost and stress of trying to acquire one is simply not worth the effort," he says. "I'm just lucky to have this one on loan."
But is it simply the name on the instrument that counts? There are, after all, top rank players around the globe today who have shunned the Strad – rather like someone favouring the sleek modernity of a Bentley to the brand exclusivity of a Rolls-Royce.
"A lot of players can't find a way to get used to them," says Ehnes. "I've been pretty nerdy about it, though, and tried so many violins to make sure I found the right one." As a student at New York's Julliard School he spent a lot of time cultivating friendships with instrument dealers in the city, through whom he learned a lot about the true value of an instrument, and what constituted the right one for him.
"The danger is you can become intoxicated with an instrument's strange personality, to the extent that the instrument plays you rather than you playing it. What I love about this particular Strad is that it allows me do to do everything I want with it; it is so multi-purpose. One day it can be the perfect Mozart violin; the next, the perfect Shostakovich violin. That's not the same with every instrument. With this one I'm able to keep pushing its limits."
That adaptability is, of course, key for the dual purpose of Ehnes's Scottish visit this week. But even in his orchestral appearances, the Britten concerto requires an element of sensitivity that must surely benefit from having so complete an instrument.
"It's a remarkable piece," he says. "Totally unique, not only in its impact, but in the way it is written for the violin. Britten asks things of the violin that appear to come out of nowhere, without stylistic precedent."
Coincidentally, it seems, Britten also completed it in Canada, 70 years ago this week, during his wartime exile in North America. "That hadn't quite struck me," admits Ehnes. "All I know is that it is a piece I learned the notes of a long time ago, probably before I had any business doing so. During the last few years it has had a bit of a renaissance, and I've finally found myself getting calls to play it."
Ehnes is at a point in his career where the calls are flooding in. When offered the luxury of two very different platforms, such as Glasgow has this week, the decision is easy. "Glasgow's been good for me," he says simply. He returns the favour this week – double time.
• James Ehnes performs Britten's Violin Concerto with the BBC SSO in Glasgow tomorrow and in Perth on Friday. His solo recital is on 28 March in the City Halls, Glasgow, at 3pm.