Consummate Musicianship from James Ehnes  and Andrew Armstrong

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Leclair, Strauss, Franck: James Ehnes (violin), Andrew Armstrong (piano), King’s Place, London 17.5.2014 (CS)

Jean-Marie Leclair: Violin Sonata in D Op.9 No.3 (Tombeau)
Richard Strauss: Violin Sonata in Eb Op.18
Allegretto in E for violin and piano, AV 149
César Franck: Violin Sonata in A, M8


I risk running out of superlatives in celebrating this demonstration of consummate musicianship by Canadian violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong.  Performing two of the greatest of Romantic violin sonatas, Ehnes revealed a flawless technique and innate musicality, his nonchalant virtuosity serving to communicate the essence of these works directly and assuredly.

The talents of French composer Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) were many: dancer, lace-maker, musician, he is now most revered for his role in establishing a new school of French violin technique and style, one which fused traditional French forms with the Italian sonata style of Corelli.

The stylistic elegance which characterises Leclair’s sonatas was evident from the opening violin motif of the Un poco Andante, the dotted rhythms dancing with balletic grace, Armstrong’saccompaniment tastefully complementing the violin’s decorative line.  The melody spun with unperturbed naturalness, as quavers evolved into triplets which in turn formed semi-quavers runs – an unbroken aria of sweetness.  The frequent double-stopping was eloquent and expressive, even more so in the ensuing Allegro in which the rondo theme was light and supple.

The Sarabande show-cased Ehnes’ pure tone and perfect intonation: the long-breathed Italianate lines blossomed with the subtle application of vibrato.  Dynamic contrasts invigorated the lively Tambourin, Armstrong’s drone-like bass well-judged and never dull, as the players created a joyful rustic mood.  Leclair’s wonderful mixture of elements was made natural and convincing.

A deep understanding of musical structure was also evident in Ehnes’ stirring rendition of Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata in Eb.  The sonata was composed in 1887-88, a time during which Strauss fell in love with the soprano Pauline de Ahna, and it is surely not too much to suggest that the passionate outpouring of melody embodies the composer’s yearning for the woman who would later become his wife.

Throughout, Ehnes demonstrated a beautiful sense of line.  After the piano’s gallant prefatory statement, the violin melody began serenely – as if casually joining with something that had already begun – then grew in intensity and grandeur, opening out richly and warmly.  Ehnes and Armstrong observed the melancholy which occasionally disturbs the expressive exuberance, and the expansive phrases were tempered by intermittent rhythmic agitation and urgency.  The close was brisk and possessed an assertiveness which made the unrestrained undulating theme which opens the Andante cantabile even more striking.  Ehnes again demonstrated a real range of tones, the silkiness of the violin’s meandering arcs contrasting with the more impassioned central section, which itself then faded into transparent wispy flourishes, before the consoling return of the main theme.

Armstrong’s introduction to the Finale was heroic and imposing, a fitting foreword to the violin’s theme, whose accented semiquavers raced in scurrying pairs across the four strings.  Once more Ehnes delved into the palette box: the lyrical utterances were pure, the string crossing passages precise but airy, the fragmented secondary motifs restless and light.  The coda was fittingly noble and spirited.

There was more Strauss after the interval, this time the composer’s little-known Allegretto in E for violin and piano.   Written in 1948, the classical simplicity of this brief waltz movement seems to look back to less troubled times, and Ehnes and Armstrong perfectly captured its wistful spirit.

Voted 25th in the King’s Place/BBC Music Magazine Chamber Classics Unwrapped Top 50, César Franck’s violin sonata is wonderfully satisfying for performers and audiences alike.  Contemporaneous with Strauss’s Eb Sonata, the work has similar ‘amorous’ origins, in that it was composed as a wedding present for the Belgian violinist Ysaÿe, who performed it at his marriage celebrations on September 26, 1886.

After the piano’s two questioning phrases, Ehnes wove the dolce melody poetically, gradually building to a compelling climax before passing the animated, swelling phrases to Armstrong.  I would perhaps have liked a rather more tentative air at the start – less hurriedness and more ‘searching’ – but the reprise of the opening theme was wonderfully poised and delicate, the brief codetta a penetrating final bloom.

The Allegro was full-blooded and resolute, the introductory piano semiquavers growling ominously before the violin’s robust syncopated melody released the pent-up tension.  The quasi lento episode brought a precarious calm to the vigorous conflicts, but the recapitulation recommenced the urgent advance to the turbulent close.

The Recitativo-Fantasia began with rhetorical earnestness, but the solemnity was moderated by the affecting tranquillity and otherworldliness evoked by Ehnes’ luminescent tone as he caressed the strings.  The canonic partnership of the Finale swept radiantly and irresistibly to the close, subsiding at times and passing through colourful interludes, but always resuming its passionate progress.

The Perlman-like sweetness of Ehnes’ tone in the soaring passages was both soothing and uplifting, his technical wizardry astounding – if anything, he makes it all seem too easy and effortless!  Overall, this was a wonderful and gratifying evening of music-making.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment