James Ehnes is “a weel-kent face” in Scotland, normally appearing once a season in Edinburgh, most recently in the Beethoven concerto with the RSNO. Remarkably, however, this was his Edinburgh International Festival debut, so he chose a programme that began in deep seriousness and ended in a flash of fireworks.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

He was joined by Edinburgh native Steven Osborne for a deeply searching exploration of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in F minor. This was a reading that looked deep into the work’s dark heart, the scales that ended the outer movements sounding, in Prokofiev’s own words, like “the wind over a graveyard”. The violin line barely shuddered into audibility in the work’s spectral opening, and the sense of impending chaos kept the blood rushing through the “brusco” second movement. The third movement, the sonata’s second slow movement, was poignant and understated before the crazy syncopations of the finale. However, here – as in the other Prokofiev set, the Five Melodies – Osborne showed a tendency to drown the violin line, suggesting that they hadn’t quite calibrated their volumes properly. In the Melodies it was less of a problem, because Ehnes’ soaring vocal line drew the ear upwards, but it’s a shame the balance hadn’t been properly accounted for, as it’s a hall they both know fairly well.

Brahms’ Third Violin Sonata is a work of properly symphonic scale, however, and it was given a reading of appropriate weight to match. No complaints about balance here. Indeed, there was well-matched drama from the outset, with the violin singing sotto voce over the piano’s stalking accompaniment that quivered with threat at the end of the exposition, before exploding into violence in the development. Ehnes played this with raw brilliance, while always staying on the right side of refinement, and that sophistication became a glowing attribute during the gorgeous main melody of the slow movement, with tone so golden that it sounded autumnal. The whirlwind finale was propelled forward with dramatic momentum, and had an unintended touch of drama thrown in as one of Ehnes’ tuning pegs fell out, meaning that he had to stop mid-flourish. Remarkably, rather than retreat backstage, he then casually fixed the problem and re-strung the instrument while seated in full view of the audience, cracking jokes as he did so. Star quality can show itself in many forms!

The second half of the recital was considerably more relaxed, with Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor seeming to explore its landscape very casually in contrast to the ultra-driven music of the first half. Ehnes then dashed off Ravel’s Tzigane with the understated flair that is his trademark, before giving a meltingly lyrical encore of the third movement of Prokofiev’s other violin sonata. I can think of few more varied ways to set out his stall for the EIF, both charming and dazzling his audience, and I really hope he’s back again before long.