Refinement, Poise and Eloquence in James Ehnes’ Wigmore Hall Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Respighi, Szymanowski and Elgar: James Ehnes (violin), Andrew Armstrong (piano), Wigmore Hall London, 26.5.2015 (CS)

Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor
Respighi: Violin Sonata in B Minor
Szymanowski: Mity (Myths) Op.30
Elgar: Violin Sonata in E Minor Op.82


Refinement, poise, eloquence: such are the qualities for which Canadian violinist James Ehnes is characteristically acclaimed. In this interesting programme at the Wigmore Hall, in which pianist Andrew Armstrong partnered Ehnes in works by Debussy, Respighi, Szymanowski and Elgar, the violinist showed that his immaculate technique and cool composure could be made to serve the diversity of idiom and wide expressive range of these four pieces, which represent their respective composers’ powerful and personal responses to the experiences of the First World War.

Debussy’s Sonata (1916-17) constantly fluctuates between contrasting sound worlds, and in the opening bars Ehnes and Armstrong slipped easily from the silky blues-like syncopations of the beginning, to the bright dashing quavers which follow – in which Armstrong’s sharp attack added vibrant tension – blossoming with radiant expansiveness at the climax of the passage. The complex impressionistic textures were delivered with remarkable clarity, every inner motif etched precisely and delicately. Indeed, the performers brought forth the ‘Classical’ qualities of the work, rather than its heady mixture of mystery and mischief; but the Intermède was no less beautiful for emphasising grace rather than fantasy, and if there might have been more rhythmic freedom then the delicacy of the whispering repetitive quavers brought their own delights. The shifting structures of the Finale were well-shaped, and Ehnes balanced the explosive free-wheeling runs which open the movement with a seductive central serenade. In the head-long tumbles of the concluding bars, defiant but joyful too, it was not difficult to imagine the musical spirit of the elderly Debussy whose final composition this would be.

When he composed his Violin Sonata in B Minor in 1917, Ottorino Respighi was beginning to refine his mature musical style, and the work has all of the drama, colour and vigour of the Roman tone-poems for which the composer is best known. The sonata was Respighi’s first large-scale chamber work since an unpublished string quartet of 1909 and, though formed of only three movements, it is monumental in scale. Armstrong did much to convey its vast reach and weight, and its underlying brooding meditativeness, while always warm of tone and sensitive to Ehnes’ eloquence.

The sonata makes great demands on both performers, calling for both considerable virtuosity and sustained musical intensity. Repeatedly rising to stratospheric heights in the opening Moderato, Ehnes played with unfailingly sweet tone, rounded and focused in even the quietest dolce melodies, radiant in more impassioned moments. The Andante espressivo built from the gentle capaciousness of Armstrong’s legato, lulling quavers into a rich Romantic outpouring which combined breadth of line with a driving agitation. There was surprisingly drama in Ehnes’ closing phrase before a long diminuendo in which the violin’s sustained G string slipped away into the consonance of the piano’s drifting quavers.

The performers’ technical accomplishment in the Allegro moderato ma energico was stunning, and again Armstrong’s contribution was impressive, the piano’s punchy rhythms supplying power and animation. With the Passacaglia of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony as its model, Respighi’s final movement treats the baroque form with considerable freedom. But despite the irregular phrase lengths, changes of time signature and unexpected harmonic twists and turns, Ehnes and Armstrong demonstrated a remarkably sure sense of musical direction.

For those who have recently enjoyed the Royal Opera House’s production of Szymanowski’s Król Roger, the astonishing variety of the captivating colours of Mites (Myths) will have come as no surprise. Composed in 1915, the three movements are miniature tone-poems inspired by Classical tales of Artemis’s transformation of the nymph Arethusa into a fountain, Narcissus’ frustrated longings and Pan’s erotic enchantment of the Dryads.

At the start of ‘The Fountain of Arethusa’, Armstrong’s shimmering piano textures were an iridescent canvas for the violin’s high euphoric song – a truly exquisite melody. The movement became increasingly frenzied, before Arethusa’s troubled lament returned in lower, more muted form, fading enigmatically into soft glissandos. ‘Narcissus’ began in sensuous, entrancing fashion as Armstrong’s translucent harmonies evoked the youth who, spurning Echo, contemplates his own reflection. The tranquil pensiveness was cast aside in a turbulent central episode, which called for some astonishing double-stopping from Ehnes. ‘Dryads and Pan’ opened with the strange moaning of the wind blowing through the forest trees, evoked by unusual microtonal playing by the violin, before the dryads’ frenzied dance was interrupted by Ehnes’ clarion-clear harmonics, the amorous call of Pan’s pipe.

Needless to say, Ehnes was more than equal to the technical challenges of the work: the natural and artificial harmonics, double-stops, two-note trills, quarter-tones, and simultaneous bowing and pizzicato were all flawless. It seems unfair to suggest that it was a little too controlled and polished, but Szymanowski conjures primal energies – raging fury, erotic frustration, ecstatic abandon – which I did not feel were not always conveyed.

However, in Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E Minor, composed in 1918, Ehnes and Armstrong displayed enormous musical and expressive depth, playing with unwavering intensity and a wide tonal range. The first movement, Allegro, Risoluto, began tempestuously, the phrases surging across the violin’s full tessitura culminating in Armstrong’s imposing, majestic thematic statement. The subsequent meandering violin theme conveyed a troubled restlessness, though this was momentarily cast aside in the Romance which seemed more weary, in its constant fluctuations of pulse. In the central section of the movement, though, Ehnes’ plaintive melody, seemingly burdened by a dark grief, was deeply moving, its poignancy matched by the resigned stillness achieved at the close of the movement.

The finale, Allegro non troppo, allowed in some brightness and light. Once again, the synchronicity of the duo in the most complex passages, which often rose to registral extremes in flamboyant contrary motion, was noteworthy. And, there was considerable grandeur and strength in the coda’s last proclamation of hope and fervour.

After this impressive and thought-provoking programme, the two encores were similarly well-chosen: Sibelius’ Mazurka of 1915 and, finally, Ravel’s Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré, both of which were played with unassuming finesse.

Claire Seymour

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