James Ehnes & Eduard Laurel

Sonata in E minor for Piano and Violin, K304
Two Movements (with bells) [BBC commission: world premiere]
Sonata in E minor for Violin and Piano, Op.82

James Ehnes (violin) & Eduard Laurel (piano)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 23 July, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

In this intriguingly and intimately entwined programme, two E minor violin sonatas framed a BBC commission by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Given that the second movement of this new work was written as if in conversation with the composer’s late father and Mozart’s sonata was written after the death of his mother, there were connections galore.

Even more satisfyingly, they came together as a musically cogent programme, finely performed by Canadian violinist James Ehnes with his regular recital partner, pianist Eduard Laurel. The recital overran, mainly because Kernis’s Two Movements (with bells) was much more substantial than the suggested 12 minutes.

Announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch surprised me, at least, in telling the audience that this Sonata is the only work Mozart wrote in the key of E minor. Despite its minor-key status the opening movement is not particularly melancholy, though its ensuing partner, a slow minuet, harking back to baroque dance suites, is rather deliberate in its tread, not a carefree dance at all. The notion of it as a keyboard sonata with optional violin part was aurally evidenced by the very opening’s unison part for both piano and violin.

Two Movements (with bells) – ‘Presto’ and ‘A Song for My Father’, each lasting close on 10 minutes – became a much more substantial centrepiece than originally intended. Despite the titles indicating, first, something totally fast and, second, a slower tempo, each movement rang the changes. The slower middle section of the first movement seemed to come to a standstill and, initially, I thought, when the music started again (building up to Piazzolla-like passages), we were in the second movement. Contrariwise ‘A Song for My Father’ – the work is dedicated to the memory of Kernis’s father – started and ended raptly, flanking more frenetic central sections.

The bells, as Ehnes related to Mohr-Pietsch in his introduction, are inherent within the music. If one didn’t always hear their presence – Ehnes admitted that only in the last few days rehearsing the piece did they realise the bells’ importance and suddenly being aware how similar real bells (heard when driving through Ontario) are to what Kernis had written.

All in all, a very impressive piece, which will grow in one’s consciousness the more one hears it. One suspects that Ehnes and Laurel will find ways of programming it often.

Kernis – absent, but, we were assured, listening online at home – sees the origin of his new violin and piano work (not titled ‘sonata’ but certainly substantial enough) in his 1982 orchestral New Era Dance, which receives its UK première at the National Youth Orchestra Prom on 4 August.

The Elgar was fervently played by Ehnes and Laurel who commanded Elgar’s twists and turns, if not quite an idiomatic English way with that most recognisable of Elgarian tricks, summed up in the notion of nobilmente; a melting to a tune both nostalgic and alive, that here sounded much more mainstream European in its demeanour. Don’t get me wrong – Elgar’s music can be played like this, and is persuasive when it is. To a certain extent the problem is mine, expecting Elgar to be played so specifically, with a more responsive way with Elgar’s sinewy style, but – on the other hand – it does sound uniquely Elgarian if so done!

Worth catching on BBC Radio 3’s “Listen Again” service; and Ehnes plays Barber’s Concerto in Prom 16.

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