Saturday, 16 April 2016

One of the finest recordings of the violin sonatas of Debussy, Elgar and Respighi from James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong on a new release from Onyx Classics

Violinist James Ehnes already has an impressive list of recordings for Onyx Classics covering concertos by Barber, Britten, Elgar, Khachaturian, Korngold, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi as well as chamber works by Barber, Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Copland and Ives.

With pianist Andrew Armstrong he has already recorded violin sonatas by César Franck and Richard Strauss. On their new recording for Onyx Classics, James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong have brought together violin sonatas by Debussy, Elgar and Respighi, all written between the years 1916 and 1918.

ONYX 4159

Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) Violin Sonata in G minor is his last major work written during the war years1916/1917. Right from the opening piano chords of the Allegro vivo, Ehnes and Armstrong bring an idiomatic sensitivity to this music, finding so many fine moments as they negotiate Debussy’s twists and turns, changes in tempi and dynamics with Ehnes often bringing a beautiful lilt whilst drawing some lovely textures.

These players bring some playful moments to the Intermède. Fantasque et léger around the most magical quieter passages. Ehnes’s bowing is a delight; light, wonderfully shaped, finding every nuance and turn. 

Armstrong brings some beautifully delicate, filigree phrases to the opening of the Finale - Très animé before Ehnes gently enters, building to some wonderfully turned phrases as the music speeds. Both bring a particularly light touch, the most fluent and finely shaped playing whilst finding moments of exquisite melancholy and subtle beauty before building to a terrific coda. This is rather a magical performance.

Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) Violin Sonata in E minor is also a late work written right at the end of the First World War and first performed in 1919. James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong launch quickly into the Allegro. Risoluto bringing a searing urgency, a really passionate edge. They soon find the melancholy, suffusing this work as they move through exquisite passages with hushed textures. These two know just how to find the inner emotions and haunting quality in this music. They move through some wonderfully shaped and nuanced passages, building to moments of intense passion, a constantly shifting emotional journey.  

These two artists find an elusive quality in the Romance – Andante with lovely little surges, momentary increases in tempo as well as some beautifully shaped longer phrases. Again there are those constantly shifting emotions, perfectly captured by these two. Ehnes brings a superb violin tone in the more richly drawn passages – some wonderfully Elgarian inflections with lightly shaped rhythmic details before a beautifully hushed coda.

The Allegro non Troppo has a lovely undulating flow as Ehnes and Armstrong seamlessly integrate the underlying melody. They move through some incisive passages but it is not long before they find Elgar’s magically elusive ideas, bringing some wonderfully rich textures and passionate moments. There is a lovely moment when, towards the end, they turn the music back to the earlier theme.

This is another rather special performance.

Ottorino Respighi’s (1870-1930) Violin Sonata in B minor dates from 1917 and is perhaps his finest chamber work. Ehnes and Armstrong bring a sense of intense anticipation to the opening of the Moderato weaving some very fine passages, always keeping a careful reign until a brief surge of drama appears. They move through some exquisitely shaped passages where, again, it is these two players ability to find the deeper, less obvious emotions that shows. The music rises through passages of intense drama around which there are moments of intensely lyrical quietude.  Armstrong  brings some very fine broad, passionate piano passages that frame Ehnes’ intense, beautifully toned passages, both bringing out much emotional turmoil and instability before leading to an exquisitely shaped coda.

They develop the Andante espressivo from a quite lovely piano opening, through some wonderful passages full of intense, aching lyricism from Ehnes, finely shaping the music through its constantly shifting emotional landscape.  Both find much passion as the music reaches a climax, weaving some lovely textures before arriving at the coda.

The Allegro moderato ma energico brings some dramatic piano phrases to open, joined by the violin in this stormy opening. They move through passages of intense volatility, both bringing the most impressive incisive phrasing. There is a grave central section that soon gives way to a lyrical flowering though soon finding a rather haunted nature. The music rises through some terrific passages to the decisive coda.

This is an impressive performance that finds much passion and emotion.  

Jean Sibelius’ (1865-1957) Berceuse, Op. 79, No. 6 is the last of a set of six pieces written during the years of the First World War. Ehnes and Armstrong exquisitely shape this short piece with some quite lovely hushed playing making this a fine encore to this disc. 

With a tip top recording from Potton Hall, Sufflok, UK and excellent booklet notes from Jeremy Nicholas this is, without doubt, one of the finest recordings of these works.

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