ELGAR; DEBUSSY; RESPIGHI Violin Sonatas
Is James Ehnes capable of making a sound that isn’t beautiful? If you’ve been following his career you’ll already have your own answer to that. If you haven’t, try from about 5'25" into tr 9: a passage of repose in Respighi’s mountainous passacaglia, played by Ehnes with such liquid sweetness and unforced expression that you might find yourself listening to it over and over again. Or take the beginning of the finale of Elgar’s Violin Sonata to hear how subtly Ehnes shades and shapes a line – and how pianist Andrew Armstrong makes it glow.
Those are merely examples: this programme of First World War-era violin sonatas is about much more than just ravishing sounds. Ehnes and Armstrong are intensely communicative duo partners and both can draw on a limitless palette of colours. They’ve chosen to bring out the darker facets of these three troubled works, charging the Debussy with a nervous energy that doesn’t prevent either player from responding to its Harlequin-like mood-shifts.
Their Elgar breaks open the romantic surface; and finds an unexpected kinship with Debussy in the interrupted serenade of the Romance – the interplay between the two players here is fantastical and profoundly tender. But they can shape long paragraphs too: listen to how the first movement of the Respighi ebbs to a close (from about 7'00" onwards). The Sibelius encore is both exquisite and perfectly appropriate.
If I’ve any reservation at all about this disc, it’s that these two superb artists feel at all times in complete control of the music: you occasionally miss the sense of abandon that you get from Kyung Wha Chung (or, in the Elgar, Lydia Mordkovitch). But you never doubt that everything that Ehnes and Armstrong have to say – and they ask more questions than they answer – comes from deep within the music. These are performances to return to.