Violin virtuoso James Ehnes gave a concert of works by Béla Bartók on May 28th at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. Just the day before, Ehnes had performed an equally challenging program of completely different repertoire - works by Ravel (the duo, the trio, and the quartet). Both performances were of the highest quality, and showcased a performer with unparalleled command of his instrument.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Eagolvea
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Eagolvea

Certainly Ehnes has all the virtuosity of a soloist. The most difficult, gnarly passages of the pieces he performed were powerfully pristine. And he has stamina to spare, moving from one exhausting work to the next without any visible or audible signs of fatigue. But what was most stunning about his performance, more stunning than his incredible speed and sniper-like accuracy, were the soft passages. Few players would dare play so soft and so tenderly as Ehnes did, drawing the audiences into the stage rather than leaping out to grab them by the neck. He often found a sound of immense sweetness and purity, allowing him to create moments of extreme tenderness and intimacy.

The two halves of the program began, respectively, with the little known Sonata in E minor, BB 28 for violin and piano, and the Solo Violin Sonata, Sz. 117. Here, Ehnes was truly in his element. The Sonata in E minor was especially captivating – an early work by the great master, the highly romantic and largely tonal nature of the piece might lead one to think that it was actually written by Strauss. Ehnes gave a performance of the work with all the romantic lushness and fullness it deserved. The technical fireworks were incredibly impressive, but again it was the soft moments that struck me. At the end of the slow movement, for example, Ehnes played an especially felt moment so quietly, as though he were speaking of something difficult to hear.

The Solo Sonata Sz. 117 was equally impressive. The incredibly complex and challenging first movement, for example, full of dangerous leaps and finger-twisting chords, was powerful and in control at all times. However, it was the slow movement that brought goosebumps to my skin. After the thick writing of the first two movements, the bareness of the Adagio was arresting, heightening the senses and calling into awareness the atmosphere of the performance space. Rich wooden ceilings and stained glass windows, St George’s Anglican Church had an aura of the ancient that night. The lighting was dim but warm – lamps hung from the ceiling, giving off a glow reminiscent of candlelight. Behind the performer, the ceiling of the apse was lit with blue light, which added a haunting feeling to the environment. At one point during the slow movement, as Ehnes was singing through an eerily beautiful passage of harmonics, a strong gust of wind blew over the church creating a low soft rumble in the nave. The effect created by the music combining with the surroundings, thought accidental, was magical.

Both halves of the concert ended with Ehnes and his string quartet performing Bartók string quartets: no. 4 at the end of the first half, and no. 3 at the end of the second. This part-time ensemble, though lacking some of the magical connection that a full-time string quartet naturally develops over time, was nonetheless impressive, tackling two of the most challenging string quartets in the repertoire with command and confidence. The second movement of Bartók's String Quartet no. 4 was especially impressive – a muted rush of insects at prestissimo tempo, the ensemble was locked in to each other at all times. The last movement of the String Quartet no. 3 was a satisfying end to the show. Notable were the searing glissandi of cellist Robert deMaine that evoked images of crashing planes. Overall, it was an impressive program from an impressive group of musicians. The bravura of the players certainly left an impression, but it is likely the soft moments that will not be forgotten.