How do violinists devise their recital programme? Canadian violinist James Ehnes and his regular duo partner Andrew Armstrong brought an oddly disparate programme to their recital at Wigmore Hall, with Schumann’s first violin sonata and Ravel’s sonata in the first half, followed by a movement of Brahms and Corigliano’s violin sonata. Of course, they are all great works, but for me, Schumann and Ravel are like chalk and cheese – one emotional and obsessive, the other more restrained and controlled – and it seemed a strange pairing.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

In the event, Ravel's sonata came out more convincing than the Schumann. Ehnes’ interpretation of the Schumann was often too steady and lacked emotional urgency. No doubt he was totally faithful to the score, as he always is, and the playing was technically impeccable, but one needs a little more edge in Schumann. Ehnes’ sweet tone and elegance worked best in the lyrical middle intermezzo, but the outer movements sounded too safe.

On the other hand, Ehnes’ polished playing certainly suited the Ravel sonata. In the first movement, the modal opening melody flowed sweetly and effortlessly, and the arpeggio passages and tremolos were superbly executed with cool precision. Ehnes and Armstrong played the blues movement with an air of nonchalance, not over-exaggerating the jazz influences and rhythms, but it had elegance and allure in abundance. The perpetuum mobile finale fizzed and sparkled – here too, his technical skill was superlative (after all, Ehnes is known for his Paganini etudes), yet he wears it so lightly. I noticed that there were many young music college students in the audience and they were certainly in awe of his technical mastery.

The second half opened with a tightly performed Brahms’ Scherzo from the FAE Sonata, but the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Corigliano’s Violin Sonata, performed with plenty of panache and commitment. It was a fun, bravura piece for both violin and piano – apparently it was originally entitled “duo” – and here Armstrong was certainly in his element, showing he could be equally as virtuosic as Ehnes. It is an early work of the composer, written in 1962-63, and in most part it is tonal though rhythmically extremely varied. The first and last movements reflect a neoclassical style à la Stravinsky, whereas the sunny second movement begins with a tender little melody (rather like a musical number) which is developed in intriguing ways. The third movement reminded me of Shostakovich’s chamber music; indicated Lento, it opens dramatically with a chorale-like solo from the piano and later there is a cadenza for the violin. Finally the two musicians come together for a perpetuum mobile last movement (was this perhaps the link to the Ravel sonata?) which culminated in an exhilarating finish. They certainly made a great case for this rarely heard work – at least on this side of the pond.

In his encores, Ehnes went for the technical wizardry, performing Heifetz’s arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Sarasate’s Zapateado, pleasing his audience. What sets him apart from other virtuosi is that even in these pieces, he never overtly shows his skills – if anything he is so modest that one forgets how fiendishly difficult they are. Overall, it was a charming and brilliant recital, if a little lightweight emotionally.

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