James Ehnes & Andrew Armstrong at Wigmore Hall – Debussy & Bartók

Sonata for Violin and Piano
Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano

James Ehnes (violin) & Andrew Armstrong (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 21 February, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

James Ehnes. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaThis BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert provided an interesting juxtaposition of two very different violin sonatas, separated by little more than three years: Debussy’s, with tightly weaved structure and subtle sleights of expression shared by violin and piano, followed by the bold and big-boned Bartók, pushing the boundaries of tonality and setting the two instruments on wildly differing paths. In both pieces James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong demonstrated remarkable musical chemistry. Ehnes secured a wonderful sound from his 1715 ‘Ex Marsick’ Stradivarius, his tuning and precision well-nigh-faultless; his performing style suggesting the violin to be a natural extension of his arm. Armstrong, meanwhile, demonstrated admirable clarity in even the most congested accompaniment, ready to take the lead whenever the music called him to.

As a result of such musical rapport, Debussy’s Sonata linked together beautifully, the first movement of his final published work displaying initial urgency but enjoying also a thoughtful, dream-like central episode, a precursor for the central movement, an intimate and discursive affair, with Armstrong offering wonderful shades of colour, while stylish performance found its zenith in the work’s closing pages, Ehnes judging portamento and rubato to perfection.

The Bartók, one of his most challenging works of its kind, received the performance of absolute authority that it needs to be effective. Both players commanded the fast music, where they are often to be found at odds both melodically and rhythmically, Bartók’s thematic writing sometimes making the music feel like two separate pieces coming together in the same room. The assurance and vigour of the quick passages, with their brittle textures, contrasted greatly with the nocturnal music of the second movement, begun by Ehnes with an eerie solo whose tone became sweeter towards the end of the lengthy opening phrase. Where similar textures were employed in the first movement the music was highly-charged, leading to trills from the violinist that were executed with such rapidity they could barely be seen The finale capped the performance, brutal when it needed to be but also bringing through the vital syncopations and dance-like rhythms. Armstrong was superb in driving towards the finish, and if Ehnes’s double-stopping fell short of the out-of-doors character of the theme, his incisive playing was totally convincing musically. That such an imposing piece should be captivating throughout says much for the players’ commitment and musicianship, with tension sustained through to the release of the final bar.

As an attractive encore Ehnes and Armstrong played Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Cyril Scott’s piano piece, Lotus Land, atmospheric overall and beautifully hushed towards its close.

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