The funny genesis of James Ehnes's 1st Juno Award-winning album

His all-Bach double CD set was released 20 years ago by Analekta Records.

His all-Bach double CD set was released 20 years ago by Analekta Records

'It was a big moment for me and I really can't stress enough how how grateful I am to Analekta to have given me that opportunity at that stage in my career.' — James Ehnes (Benjamin Ealovega)

Twenty years ago, Analekta Records released J.S. Bach: The Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. It was James Ehnes's debut on the label and it garnered the young violinist his first Juno Award, setting in motion a track record of 28 eventual nominations and 11 wins that would make him the most decorated individual classical musician in Juno Award history.

"That Bach album had a funny genesis," reflected Ehnes during a recent phone call with CBC Music. "Back in the mid-'90s, I had signed a contract with Telarc to a five-year, six-CD deal. It was really the tail end of when the industry was a very different creature. We ended up making one CD that was released in 1996 — Paganini: 24 Caprices — and then the industry just completely changed. And for a whole variety of reasons, we never really figured out that second project."

After back-and-forth discussions, Telarc and Ehnes parted ways.

"And it was right around this time that I was contacted by Analekta," Ehnes continued. "I was young. What did I know about record companies? I had a few Analekta CDs [in my collection], the label had a good reputation, but I really didn't know much about them."

Analekta expressed an interest in starting with a solo violin recording project and another one with piano.

"My manager and mentor those days — and for most of my career as well — was Walter Homburger. Walter said, 'Ask for what you want. All they can say is no.' My experience with Telarc had led me to believe that it was probably going to end up being some compromise between me wanting something quite ambitious and them wanting something that they saw as more marketable. So I thought, 'Well, I'm just going to see what they say.' And I said, 'I want to record the Prokofiev sonatas with piano, and I want to record the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas,' fully expecting them to come back and say, 'Yeah, OK, well, you know, we were thinking, maybe you could do this or that,' and we'd find some compromise. And instead, they were like, 'Great. When do you want to start?'"

You should pay attention to this guy. He's really hot.- Mario Labbé quoting Angèle Dubeau

Ehnes had come to the attention of Analekta president Mario Labbé through violinist Angèle Dubeau, Labbé's wife. "She heard him on CBC and she immediately said to me, 'You should pay attention to this guy. He's really hot,'" Labbé told CBC Music. "Angèle hasn't said that to me many times about other violinists. So, I decided to approach him."

Labbé was immediately onboard with Ehnes's proposed Prokofiev project, but admits he had doubts about Bach's Sonatas and Partitas — two hours and 30 minutes of solo violin music, requiring a certain artistic maturity. "I thought he was a bit young. I asked him, 'Are you sure?,' and his answer was so convincing that I said, 'OK, yes, let's go.'"

Église Saint-Augustin de Mirabel, situated 40 km northwest of Montreal, has become a go-to venue for recording Baroque music. (Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec)

Upon hearing Ehnes's first notes at the recording sessions, which took place at Église Saint-Augustin de Mirabel, Labbé knew he'd made the right decision. "Wow, this is pure maturity," he thought to himself. "This guy has something to say in these Sonatas, and even Angèle was totally impressed by his playing and his depth in this music."

"James is very accurate, very fine," Labbé continued. "That's why Bach's Sonatas and Partitas are very suitable for him. There's no Romanticism, it's 'the Bible,' it's Bach and it's something he really projected well."

'A pretty savvy side hustle'

According to Ehnes, l'Église Saint-Augustin de Mirabel had a "really warm, very beautiful sound," enabling producer Brad Michel and recording engineer Carl Talbot to "mic quite closely and still retain a sense of space and resonance." And while Ehnes remembers very little about the sessions themselves — "I was just kind of maxed out; it's like all of my mental energy was focused on the recordings themselves" — one anecdote does stand out in his memory:

"I remember that there was a guy who lived right behind the church. Apparently he knew when there were going to be recordings being made. So he would wait until it was probably time for the session to start and then he'd go out and start mowing his lawn [laughs]. And basically, it was one of these understood things that you just had to pay this guy off. That was a pretty savvy side hustle there for that guy."

Early the following year, the album received a Juno nomination for best classical album: solo or chamber ensemble. "Getting the nomination was, of course, very exciting," Ehnes recounted. "I remember doing an interview for a newspaper or radio in my home province of Manitoba and they were basically taking the attitude of 'how amazing for you to get a nomination. Of course, you're not going to win, but I hope you're really happy that you got a nomination.' And I remember thinking to myself, 'Hey, wait a minute. I mean, why not me?' I knew there were wonderful nominees in the category, as there always are every year, but I thought, 'I'm proud of what I did, and hopefully other people will enjoy it as well.'"

Fast-forward to 2020, and Bach has again become Ehnes's preoccupation. While locked down in his Florida home, he self-produced a series of six subscription videos featuring his performances of these same Sonatas and Partitas as well as the Sonatas for solo violin by Eugène Ysaÿe.

"It's the only time I've ever recorded something where I didn't have a session producer," he noted. 'It was the middle of the night, because that was the only time it was quiet enough. You know, I couldn't force my wife and kids to be quiet all afternoon. So I got into this weird schedule, going to bed early and waking up at midnight and recording from one to four in the morning."

In addition to being a creative outlet, the project was also therapeutic for Ehnes.

"It was a weird time for so many reasons. Of course, there's the coronavirus, but there's also been so much unrest in the world and certainly in the United States. The night I recorded the Bach D minor Partita, America was burning. There were protests and riots and violence and unrest, and for me, the very best thing I could have done that night for myself was play the Bach D minor Partita — four times, the whole thing. And that's what I did. I took a 250-year-dead German guy and used him as my therapist that night and it worked."

Ehnes hopes these recent Bach recordings will be released as a new album in the not-too-distant future, providing his fans with two versions of these pieces to compare.

"As a Canadian, it's the best possible scenario when you record a piece of iconic Bach twice. You know, the great example we have from Gould with his Goldberg Variations — both of those recordings are so special. There are people who are absolutely devoted to one and people who are absolutely devoted to the other, and people who couldn't live without either. I mean, that's what we would all aspire to. So, you know, Gould: all these years later, still manages to be sort of the greatest inspiration."

Submissions to the 2021 Juno Awards are now open. For information, head over here.