Williams & Bernstein / Ehnes, Denève, St. Louis Symphony

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The St. Louis Symphony and their music director Stéphane Denève present a program featuring two of the most accomplished American composers in history: Leonard Bernstein...

The St. Louis Symphony and their music director Stéphane Denève present a program featuring two of the most accomplished American composers in history: Leonard Bernstein with his Serenade and John Williams with his Violin Concerto, both performed by star James Ehnes, one of the most exceptional North American violinists. John Williams himself was present at the recording of his violin concerto, working together with the St. Louis Symphony, Denève, and Ehnes.

Both works evolve around love: Bernstein’s Serenade was inspired by musings on love from Plato’s Symposium while Williams’s work was arguably inspired and eventually dedicated to his suddenly deceased wife. By combining these two concert pieces, this album puts the symphonic work of Bernstein and Williams at the center, two composers who weren’t afraid of crossing the boundaries between film music and “serious” classical genres at a time when these worlds were generally kept far apart. Especially in Williams' concerto, there are still hints of his work as a film composer; the slow movement brings to mind a scene of emotional gravity.

Widely considered one of the world's finest orchestras, the SLSO maintains its commitment to artistic excellence, educational impact, and community connections. The St. Louis Symphony, Stéphane Denève, and James Ehnes all make their Pentatone debut.


Dutch label Pentatone continues to champion American orchestras with the Saint Louis Symphony’s recording of violin concertos by John Williams and Leonard Bernstein. Williams dedicated the 1974 Violin Concerto No. 1 to his late wife, the actress Barbara Ruick. It’s a serious-minded, sometimes bleak affair, and Williams has called it atonal, though it seems harmonically straightforward enough.

With a 30-minute, three-movement sweep, Williams's concerto is expansive too. Canadian violinist James Ehnes is the thoughtful soloist, investing the music with deserved gravitas and fully on top of its technical challenges. Stéphane Denève leads a weighty reading, darkly dramatic in the opening “Moderato,” consoling in the glowing slow movement (which Ehnes plays like an angel), and incisive in the intermittently clangorous finale.

Bernstein’s Serenade has been recorded many times, but this astute interpretation is a welcome reminder of both its wistful profundity and its headstrong vigor. Ehnes and Denève open the debate spaciously with an expressive account of the “Phaedrus” movement. “Aristophanes” seems to channel graceful elements out of Candide, while a weighty “Socrates” gives way to the jazzy joie de vivre of “Alcibiades.” The violin sound is clean and clear, offset against a slightly resonant orchestra.

-- Musical America (Clive Paget)

Violinist James Ehnes’ discography is so extensive that it was only a question of when he’d get around to recording Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, not if. What’s more striking about his new recording with Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) is that it pairs Bernstein’s 1954 effort with John Williams’ Violin Concerto No. 1.

The Williams dates from the mid-‘70s and was written right after the untimely death of his first wife, the actress Barbara Ruick. Its brooding, volatile aspect perhaps owes something to that context – the central “Slowly in peaceful concentration” unfolds like an elegiac barcarolle – though this is hardly funereal music.

In fact, the Concerto marked a turning point in Williams’ concert music, allowing him to cultivate what he called the “Romantic [Atonal], but in an American way”-style he’d long been striving for...there’s a motivic rigor here that’s straight out of the Brahms-Schoenberg line and the writing for violin and orchestra is thoroughly idiomatic...[here, it is] exceptionally well played and draws out the tight thematic relationships between each movement. The Canadian violinist makes the most of the introspective spots – the middle movement, the reflective episode in the center of the finale, especially – while also suffusing its bravura passagework with purpose and direction.

Denève and the SLSO are right with him, teasing out the music’s gentle echoes of Hollywood and sometimes mercurial shifts of character with surety and ease.

They make for an impressive combination, too, in the Bernstein. Take or leave the score’s programmatic allusions to Plato’s Symposium: the Serenade is one of the American composer’s freshest and most satisfying concert works.

Here, Ehnes plays with gorgeous tone – the clarity of his bow arm is just marvelous, as is his left hand’s ability to cleanly and purposefully get the music’s knotty double and triple stops to sing. Over the Serenade’s first three movements, too, there’s a strong sense of shape and propulsion: this is well-focused, graceful, spry Bernstein.

-- The Arts Fuse

Product Description:

  • Release Date: April 26, 2024

  • UPC: 8717306261487

  • Catalog Number: PTC5187148

  • Label: Pentatone

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 20th Century, Contemporary

  • Composer: Leonard Bernstein, John Williams

  • Conductor: Stephane Deneve

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Saint Louis Symphony

  • Performer: James Ehnes


  1. Serenade

    Composer: Leonard Bernstein

    Ensemble: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

    Performer: James Ehnes (Violin)

    Conductor: Stéphane Denève

  2. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in Memory of B.R.W.

    Composer: John Williams

    Ensemble: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

    Performer: James Ehnes (Violin)

    Conductor: Stéphane Denève