James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong in a Spectacular Recital at the Wigmore Hall

United StatesUnited States  Tartini, Beethoven, Paganini, Franck: James Ehnes (violin), Andrew Armstrong (piano) Wigmore Hall, London. 25.1.2012 (RB)

Tartini: Violin Sonata in G minor ‘The Devil’s Trill’ (arr. Fritz Kreisler)
Beethoven: Violin Sonata in F Op 24 ‘Spring’
Paganini:4 Caprices from 24 Caprices Op 1
Franck: Violin Sonata in A

James Ehnes is currently taking the Classical music world by storm, releasing new recordings every few months and described by some as the new Heifetz. In this recital he was partnered by Andrew Armstrong who is a very accomplished pianist and artist.

Ehnes began his recital with Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata (1713) in the arrangement by Fritz Kreisler. The sonata was inspired by a dream in which Tartini is said to have persuaded the Devil to play his violin and heard music ‘of such perfection and meaning that I could never have imagined anything like it’. The sonata is technically a very demanding work and is famous for its double stopping and trills suspended over a simultaneously bowed melodic line. To make things even more difficult, Kreisler added his own virtuoso cadenza at the end of the last movement.

In the opening ‘allegro affetuoso’, Ehnes’ phrasing was silky smooth and his intonation and articulation were excellent. The subtle shifts in mood and dynamics were perfectly judged and calibrated and the emotional shifts beautifully underlined. In the ensuing ‘allegro’ Ehnes showed the range of sonority he could evoke from his Stradivarius and his articulation of the rapid-fire passage work was superb. In the ‘grave – allegro assai’ last movement, Ehnes alternately conveyed highly expressive and anguished emotions and spiky diabolism in the famous ‘Devil’s Trill’ section. His command of the double stopping and complex ornamentation was very assured while the Kreisler cadenza was dispatched with ease.

Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ sonata was written around 1800 and is famous for the lyrical opening of the first movement. The sonata’s scoring is perfectly integrated and balanced between violin and piano and it therefore requires two equal partners. There is no doubt that Andrew Armstrong is a superb pianist and musician but he could not match Ehnes in this work (I suspect very few pianists could). I was delighted to note the musicianly restraint with which Ehnes and Armstrong played the opening movement. The opening melody was fresh and direct and the phrasing was beautifully tapered. There was excellent interplay between the two players in the lively and vibrant second subject. Armstrong’s playing of the lyrical opening of the ‘adagio molto expressivo’ was particularly lovely and there was some well executed ornamentation. Ehnes’ control of expression and tone was really quite extraordinary and some of the modulations were absolutely gorgeous. The scherzo had a childlike exhilaration while in the final rondo the two players conjured up a range of lovely textures and colours.

The second half of the concert began with Ehnes playing four of Paganini’s solo violin caprices. He has recorded the caprices twice and is justly renowned for his performances of these technically demanding works. In the opening A minor caprice, Ehnes unleashed from his Stradivarius a torrent of scales and arpeggios followed by spicatto-bowed semiquavers. The audience were unable to contain themselves and responded immediately with whoops and applause. Ehnes followed this with the double stopping of the E major caprice and the rapid semi-quaver arpeggios of the G minor. He concluded with the famous 24th caprice in A minor in which he proceeded to give a master class in how to overcome every technical demand in the violinist’s handbook. I was struck by the fact that Ehnes seemed relatively unperturbed by the huge technical demands and was focusing more on creating architecture, structures and colours. His playing was nothing short of spectacular and was rewarded with rapturous applause from the Wigmore audience.

The final work on the programme was Franck’s wonderful Violin Sonata in A major which the composer wrote for Eugene Ysaÿe. In the opening ‘allegro ben moderato’, Ehnes conjured a much warmer and richer tone from his Stradivarius and his phrasing was again superb. He managed to sustain organic growth in the movement right up to the climax in a perfectly calibrated way. Armstrong was highly expressive in the central section of the movement and the balance between the players was superbly judged. Both players went up a notch for the turbulent ‘allegro’ second movement. Armstrong handled the virtuoso demands of the piano part well and I was pleased that he used very little pedal and maintained very clean contours and textures. Ehnes really took flight in this movement and managed to achieve a soaring intensity. The coda had a visceral intensity with both players going at full throttle. Ehnes’ performance of the slow third movement was nothing short of miraculous: his playing had a rawness and sensuality that really made the audience connect with this wonderful music and he moved from sensitive reflection to soaring passion in a seamless way. In the famous final canon, both players seemed to live and breathe every bar of the music. I have heard this music many times and have played the piano part and my attention was held by every single note of this performance.

Ehnes and Armstrong received rapturous applause from the audience who were rewarded with a trio of encores. In the opening Bartok Rumanian Dance, Ehnes showed his versatility and range by displaying a range of extraordinary technical effects and working the music up into a fever pitch of excitement. The recital ended with a splash of Iberian colour from Sarasate. A spectacular recital.

Robert Beattie