Choosing a programme for a recital is as important and nearly as difficult as all the practice that happens next. The programme must be the perfect length, provide a contrast of musical styles and yet be linked in some way so as not to be arbitrary. No-one could accuse violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong of poor programming; however they certainly didn’t make it easy for themselves. The violin sonatas of Debussy and Bartók are as unalike in style as possible, given they were composed just five years apart (1916 and 1921 respectively). Both exceedingly difficult to pull off, the Debussy demands the instant changes of mood and sinuous sounds so typical of French music, whilst the Bartók requires a much meatier sound coupled with the flawless technique and musical interpretation for which Ehnes is renowned.

© Benjamin Ealovega
© Benjamin Ealovega

James Ehnes’ stunning tone was apparent from his very first notes as he tuned up onstage; he is a hugely versatile player who coaxed different colours of sound from his 1715 Stradivarius with the breathtaking ease of a magician. Debussy’s music is referred to as Impressionist as it changes mood as quickly and unpredictably as paintings of the same type, impulsively leaping from the depths of despair to heights of rapture like a moody teenager. By refusing to allow their audience time to adjust to these rapid mood swings, Ehnes and Armstrong portrayed this Gallic tempestuousness with a masterful touch.

As with some of the greatest musicians, it was possible when listening to this superb violinist to forget what instrument was actually being played. Ehnes’ ability to change the sound of the violin to the deep sonority of the cello and then suddenly find the purity of the oboe made for a hugely interesting performance. Debussy detractors argue that his music lacks the drama of the great Germanic composers; however Debussy as interpreted by two such outstanding musicians was a multi-coloured and ever-shifting impression of a beautiful dream.

From Debussy’s fragrant dream world we moved to a far more barren scene: Bartók’s atonal Violin Sonata No.1 makes the violin sound like a hopelessly lost butterfly floating over the piano’s jagged moonscape. When faced with Ehnes’ famously perfect tuning and supreme musicality, however, this spiky atonality unravelled to become both comprehensible and really rather beautiful. The slow middle movement opens with a long section for solo violin, imbued by Ehnes with a kind of wistful stillness that acted as a marvellous contrast to the troubled, searching first movement. The dance-like finale contains the usual Bartók signatures of irregular rhythms, varying speeds, drones and off-beat accents, so often played up so as to detract from the actual music of the piece. Although they didn’t try to play these elements down, Ehnes and Armstrong managed to make these inflections as natural as they were to the Czech folk musicians who influenced Bartók. Although the entire programme was very much a partnership of as equal weight, the last movement has a very virtuosic piano part where the violinist accompanies the piano with plucked chords. It was a pleasure to hear Armstrong emerge from the sensitive accompaniment he provided throughout the recital and demonstrate his own superlative musicality.

Having pulled off these two very different and complex pieces Ehnes returned to the stage to perform an encore to ensure the recital was the correct length for broadcasting on BBC Radio 3. Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land, arranged by the violinist Kreisler as a popular concert piece, is by no means a masterpiece in the manner of the preceding pieces: it is an enjoyable encore piece which has no delusions of grandeur. Here Ehnes was able to allow his musical imagination free rein, inserting slides and breathtaking dynamic extremes to demonstrate that although it is indeed important to create a well-rounded programme, an excellent player can make a great performance from anything he likes.