Bravo Bartók: James Ehnes and Friends in Montreal

CanadaCanada  Bartók: Bravo Bartók!, James Ehnes and Friends, James Ehnes (violin), Andrew Armstrong (piano), James Ehnes String Quartet, Montreal Chamber Music Festival, St. George’s Church, Montreal, 28.5.2012 (SSM)

Sonata in E Minor for Violin and Piano, BB 28
Quartet # 4 for Strings, Sz. 91, BB 95
Solo Violin Sonata, Sz. 117, BB 124
Quartet # 3 for Strings, Sz. 85, BB 93

Every spring for the last 17 years Montreal has hosted the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. The event has grown from a few concerts to 18 this year over a 3-week period. The venues have also changed, and the Festival is now held at St. George’s Church, with a custom stage covered by baffles that improve the acoustics. The schedule for this year included several jazz bands, all 15 quartets by Shostakovich over 4 nights, Bach’s cello suites over 2 nights and the Mozart string quintets on 2 nights as well.

The Festival’s founding director is cellist Denis Brott, whose energy and enthusiasm are unlimited. Looking to expand the program’s reach beyond Montreal, Brott came down to New York this past January with the Canadian Afiara Quartet to introduce the Festival to New Yorkers. The performance at the intimate WMP Concert Hall was exemplary, and it encouraged me to attend this year’s Festival.

For Bravo Bartók!, violinist James Ehnes created a program that started with one of Bartók’s early works and ended with one of his last. Written while Bartók was still a student, the Violin Sonata in C Major is pleasant enough, although youthfully derivative of Brahms, particularly in the first movement where Bartók copies Brahms’ signature use of parallel thirds. The second movement starts off as if it were a funeral march, but speeds up in the style of Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsodies; Andrew Armstrong took in stride the movement’s demanding arpeggios. Although Hungarian folk elements are present here and there in the first two movements, it’s not until the final movement that we clearly hear anything of the later Bartók and his modal folk-dance themes and harmonies.

The performers had the choice of emphasizing the sonata’s backward-looking style with its elements of Brahms’ and Franck’s sonatas, or looking ahead to Bartók’s later works and even some early Schoenberg. Given the work’s fairly obvious tonality and late romantic glow, Ehnes might have made a stronger case for this sonata by looking back.

By the time we get to the 3rd and 4th quartets 24 years have passed. The 4th quartet, which sounds so modern on first hearing, hovers tonally around C major, and this key signature is often given with the title. The first movement could be considered to be in sonata form, although hidden behind the movement’s glissandi, trills and marcatos. The second movement continues with Bartók’s bag of tricks, using sul ponticelli to create the buzzing insect sound that appears in so many of his orchestral works as well. The middle third movement acts as a bridge to the fourth and fifth movements which are mirror images structurally of the first two movements: the fourth’s snap pizzicato mirroring the second’s use of pizzicato, and the fifth with its strong thematic relationship to the first movement. The newly formed James Ehnes Quartet may not have the magical sound that emanates from groups with years of experience playing these works together, but they gave a vibrant reading, with Ehnes smoothly handling the work’s technical requirements.

The Solo Violin Sonata, commissioned and first performed by Yehudi Menhuin, is one of Bartók’s last works. There is no way to write a solo violin sonata without knowing that it will be judged against the unequaled sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Bach. Bartók was fearless in composing this work, and wrote two movements whose names reference Bach’s set of pieces. The first movement, Tempo di Ciaccona, takes its title from the last movement of Bach’s second solo violin sonata. The Ciaccona is a chaconne mostly in the grandeur of its spirit and tempo, but occasionally one does hear Bach in Bartók’s use of multiple stops, and his attempts to emulate a bass line.


[wpaudio url=”″  text=”Opening of First Movement of Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin” dl=”0″]

The designation Fuga is used by Bach for several movements, and Bartók’s fugue has both a Baroque-style theme and elements of a true fugal execution. This can be said of the Bach-like Adagio and the gigue-like Presto as well. Ehnes gave an authoritative performance. Handling a piece this difficult is no mean accomplishment and Ehnes was unfaltering in negotiating its vertiginous heights.

The final work on the program was the brief Quartet No 3, which is really one movement and a coda. The opening moderato with its various string techniques segues into a frenetic second movement that could be the second theme and development of a sonata form, with the third movement a recapitulation of the exposition. The coda compresses into its few minutes the spirit of the preceding movements, ending with a boisterous and upbeat finale to this challenging and rewarding concert.

Stan Metzger

[I was only able to attend concerts during the Festival’s final week. For a fuller analysis of all the programs see Laurence Vittes’s daily reports.]