When the Montréal Chamber Music Festival celebrated its 24th birthday this year by returning to Bourgie Hall opposite the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the marquee attraction was James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong playing Beethoven's ten violin sonatas. With the Festival's penguin logo projected onto the stage backdrop like a Bat-Signal, Ehnes and Armstrong played Op.30 no.3, Op.96, and Op.47, the Kreutzer. There was an air of nervous anticipation in the packed hall.

James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong © Christine Bourgier
James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong
© Christine Bourgier

The Beethoven they revealed through their commitment to communicating the essence of the music through sublime playing scrupulously following a comprehensive understanding of the score created an unstoppable and organic narrative flow that had the audience riveted to every note. It was an emotionally complex Beethoven they revealed, full of love and rage, all in a very modern way.

They also provided a chronicle of just how far the violin came as a power instrument in Beethoven's mind during the roughly 15 years over which these sonatas were written; with Ehnes peerlessly cutting through Armstrong's kaleidoscopic piano playing the violin triumphed at last. In the audiophile hall, resonant and precise at the same time, Ehnes's tone came through wonderfully silken in its upper registers, and tawny in its lower which were rich in the wine-red, golden, chocolate colors of his violin.

In their light-hearted G major sonata, Op.30 no.3, Armstrong found a zone in the Tempo di Menuetto in which he accentuated isolated notes as if they were jewels in a crown. The pair had lots of fun with the curious third movement yet, by giving full measure to every note, seemed aware that Beethoven's harmless jokes might be a prelude to joke making on a more cosmic scale, like the last movement of the Kreutzer.

From the moment Ehnes trilled the G major Op.96 into existence, he and Armstrong achieved the kind of musical transparency that results naturally from using fortepianos with leather hammers and gut strings, and only with great care and commitment when using modern instruments. The heartbreaking purity of Ehnes' first statement of the first movement's big theme, his gorgeous double stops, led to an intimacy between the two instruments that argued a case convincingly that the two players were proxies for Beethoven and Antoni Brentano, his "immortal beloved": The delirious intertwining of lines, the chaste violin against the silver piano, the deep reflecting pools beneath the colors of Ehnes' Strad. He used portamento very rarely, and yet every time it took your breath away. And then after more touching dialogue, Ehnes took the final Presto at such a clip that he simply sailed through the two notoriously treacherous hiccups and rode across Armstrong's rainbow bridge to a brilliant climax.

James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong © Christine Bourgier
James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong
© Christine Bourgier

In the Kreutzer after intermission, Ehnes and Armstrong pulled no punches in laying out the titanic physical struggles and the profound emotional and harmonic releases; they took the full measure of the incredibly large slow movement, comparable to the last movement of the Eroica. In not shrinking from its depressive, frightened aspects, the performance overall raised comparisons to another Middle Period piece of of similar expression, dimension and depth, the Appassionata.

The seriousness of the performances all three nights was underlined by the fact that despite thunderous applause after each sonata, the pair took a minimum number of deferential bows, as if they were thinking that it was Beethoven who should be acknowledged.

Also on the Festival docket at Bourgie Hall was a series of well-attended noontime concerts presented the Bank of Montréal's Hottest Classical Artists Under 30 roster playing on stringed instruments from the Canada Council for the Arts' Musical Instrument Bank. The playing was outrageous.

Also, each afternoon at five, a courageous quintet of pianists took on Liszt's adaptations of Beethoven's nine symphonies (two pianos for the Ninth). Only one made you wonder what if Beethoven had never orchestrated his symphonies and this was all we had. It was legendary Montrealer Richard Raymond, who teaches at the Conservatoire de musique à Montréal, who delivered such immense amounts of power seemingly directly through his shoulders into the piano that the Fourth Symphony came off as a predecessor of the Hammerklavier. And the Fifth was even more cataclysmic – at times when it wasn't being insanely melodramatic or simply sentimental.

*****