An Absorbing Bartók Recital from James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong

22/09/2015

Bartók: James Ehnes (violin), Andrew Armstrong (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 18.9.2015 (MB)

Bartók
Rhapsody no.1, BB94a
Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, BB28
Hungarian Folk Tunes from For Children, BB53, arr. Szigeti and Bartók
Violin Sonata no.2 in C major, BB85

I doubt one can ever have too much Bartók; I have certainly never felt any such thing, and did not in this recital of music for violin and piano, two instruments which owe him so much – the piano, if anything, still more than the violin. Listeners often have very strong views about the ‘right’ way to perform his works; indeed, a friend of mine who was present, was less than keen on these performances, very much preferring what I might call a traditionally ‘Hungarian’ manner of playing, although that description clearly begs more questions than answers. I increasingly find myself intrigued by alternatives, not that I should wish to forsake the fire of acknowledged classic performances. Bartók, like any great composer, is for the world, and frankly, the last thing we need in any aspect of our lives is more nationalism. (As for the present political situation in Hungary…)

At any rate, I enjoyed this concert. I have very unhappy memories of playing the piano part in a performance of the first Rhapsody, my recital partner and I falling out of sync for a good few bars, as the music sped up, sounding out of control in quite the wrong way. (I had wanted to play Webern, but anyway…!) Needless to say, this was a far more satisfactory performance. James Ehnes has a classically golden tone, varied when necessary with a wide range of dynamic contrast, all put to good use here. There were times when I found Andrew Armstrong’s pianism a little reticent, a little too much of an ‘accompaniment’, but given my own disastrous showing, I am not inclined to be unduly harsh. During the second, ‘friss’ section, things gathered pace infectiously, Ehnes’s harmonics and crossing of strings especially impressive, the musicians’ partnership real and convincing.

The 1903 E minor Sonata is a fascinating piece. Very little sounds like the mature composer’s works, just as in many of his early piano pieces, some of which I have played with greater success – I think! – than the Rhapsody. One hears a little Strauss, certainly, doubtless a kinship, perhaps kinship rather than influence, with Ernst von Dohnányi, and there are certainly Brahmsian connections too, but to my ears it is Liszt to whom Bartók often comes closest. Structure never quite becomes dynamic form, but this is an apprentice work, and there is much to delight and intrigue. Here, the harmonies in particular seemed relished, especially in the first movement, Romantically marked Allegro moderato (molto rubato). Ehnes and Armstrong seemed keen to point out – or maybe this just emerged naturally – the closeness of some of Bartók’s writing in the slow movement to Brahms in ‘Hungarian’ mode, although even here, Liszt – whose contribution to ‘Hungarian’ music is still often misunderstood – shone through. And the finale danced nicely, if not quite convincingly. Perhaps another performance might have made something less sectional of it, but I think the problem lies more with the work than with how we heard it performed. This was an absorbing opportunity, nevertheless.

The ‘Hungarian Folk Tunes’ from For Children, as arranged by Szigeti and Bartók, made for a characterful introduction to the second half. There is a great deal of variety to be heard here, a variety which came across in winningly unforced fashion. The balance between folk tune and composition was finely achieved throughout. I should happily have listened to such music for much longer.

The principal dish, however, was the second numbered violin sonata, an unquestionable masterpiece – and that is how it sounded here, very much a kinsman to the string quartets. Although the work is ‘in’ C major, its extended tonality – or whatever one wants to call it, and the question is a real one – makes at many times the stronger impression. Ehnes and Armstrong strongly integrated what could readily sound as ‘efects’ into the trajectory of their musical performance. One heard the formal difference between a sonata born of old forms and happy to employ them and one which triumphantly recreated its own form before our ears. Sonata form? Yes, if one will, but one which takes Lisztian formal compression perhaps to an extreme beyond Schoenberg and yet which never makes that compression seem the point. Armstrong’s voicing of chords reminded me at times of the Piano Concertos – and of a fine performance of them at that. Ehnes’s line was equally impressive throughout, clearly projecting expression through the music rather than viewing it as something to be ‘added on’. As a touching encore, we heard the early A major Andante Bartók wrote for Adila d’Arányi, then the object of his affections, its late Romanticism providing just the right sort of contrast.

Mark Berry

Comments

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! Edinburgh Usher Hall 2019-2020 Orchestral Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2020 Ring Cycles __________________________________
  • NEW! Roman River 2019 Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! Ex Cathedra’s 50th Anniversary Season in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Geneva Grand Théâtre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! 2019-20 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden __________________________________
  • NEW! City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Musikfest Berlin 2019 from 30 August to 19 September __________________________________
  • NEW! 2019 BBC Proms 19 July – 14 September __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Zurich Opera House in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Opera in 2019-2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB in 2019-2020 and Updates on their New London City Island Home __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music and Other Events at the Southbank Centre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Cleveland Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Met: Live in HD in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Free Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Loki’s Madam Butterfly can be seen in Alton and London this September __________________________________
  • NEW! The Joys of the Marlboro Music Festival: Chamber Music’s Best-Kept Secret __________________________________
  • NEW! MATTHEW BOURNE’S ROMEO AND JULIET IN CINEMAS FROM 22 OCTOBER __________________________________
  • NEW! CELLIST JOHANNES MOSER IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • NEW! CHORUS MASTER STEPHEN DOUGHTY IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE __________________________________
  • REVIEWED! Ron Howard’s Pavarotti in Cinemas 13 July (Preview) and Nationwide (15 July) __________________________________
  • MULTI-FACETED MUSICIAN JOY LISNEY IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE __________________________________
  • ‘MUSICAL MAGIC’: AN INTERVIEW WITH VIOLINIST HENNING KRAGGERUD __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR THOMAS SANDERLING IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR ÁDÁM FISCHER IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH ITALIAN BARITONE FRANCO VASSALLO __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH LISETTE OROPESA AS SHE RETURNS TO LA OPERA FOR ORFEO ED EURIDICE __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month