Perhaps the most notable celebration in Cleveland of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary came in the shape of James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong’s presentation of the complete violin sonatas at the Cleveland Chamber Music Society. While arguably not quite capturing the full breadth of Beethoven’s compositional development like the cycles of symphonies, piano sonatas or string quartets, the ten violin sonatas nonetheless show the composer at his most wonderfully inventive. Neatly divided into three recitals, the final instalment was originally on the calendar for April 2020, inevitably to be canceled. Fortunately, more than a year later, the project was at last realized in a program devoted to the last two sonatas from Op.30 and the concluding Op.96.

James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong
© Cleveland Chamber Music

From the first bar, the rapid and effervescent opening of the Violin Sonata no. 8 in G major showed the duo’s tight chemistry. Despite the work’s insouciance, a fiery contrasting theme added ample heft, a tension which the performers did much to draw out. Although no. 8 is a lighter affair than its immediate predecessor, one was not left wanting for drama. A brief central movement was given with charm and delicacy and the dance-like rhythms of the finale made for a conclusion of great exuberance.

C minor is a key Beethoven reserved for his most tragic works, and the Violin Sonata no. 7 is certainly no exception. A brooding unease imbued the opening Allegro con brio with pathos, building to a grand, sweeping melody in the development, the movement’s emotional crest. The Adagio cantabile offered a luminous respite, while a simple theme in the subsequent scherzo burgeoned with great energy. The finale was unrelenting, relishing its minor tonality and performed with conviction and authority.

The first nine violin sonatas came in a span of just six years; the final entry – No. 10 in G major – appeared some ten years later. The gentlest of gestures opened in the unaccompanied violin, resounding wonderfully from Ehnes’ Ex-Marsick Stradivarius. The piano answered shortly thereafter and the music proceeded with graceful elegance. A slow movement was deeply expressive, recalling that of the Emperor piano concerto, completed one year prior. A limpid scherzo was briefly inserted before the ambitious set of variations with which the work concluded. The theme harked back to the graciousness of the opening, and what followed was music of marvelous variety and color. Much gratitude to the performers and the Cleveland Chamber Music Society for bringing the cycle to fruition – it was worth the wait.

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