by Daniel Hathaway
On October 14 in Finney Chapel, Canadian violinist James Ehnes took Oberlin’s 1722 Stradivarius on the first public outing since its complete restoration. Leavening distinguished playing with laid-back humor, his splendid recital with pianist Andrew Armstrong on the Oberlin Artist Recital Series put the famous fiddle through its paces in music by Beethoven, Ravel, Brahms, and John Corigliano. It was a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Beethoven’s D-Major Sonata, the first of his Op. 12 pieces, found the violin singing out with easy lyricism and warm transparency over the rather more prominent piano part — self-designed by the 29-year-old composer to show off his keyboard prowess to the Viennese public. Here, Ehnes and Armstrong established an exemplary level of ensemble that held true for the next two hours — as well as their ability to banter affably between pieces.
Ehnes told Ravel and Gershwin stories — accompanied by quips from the unamplified Armstrong — before the two played the Frenchman’s 1927 Sonata, famous for its jazz-inflected “Blues” movement. The violinist noted that the piece had extracted four years of toil from the composer, who believed that the two instruments were basically incompatible. Even so, the Sonata is fresh and arresting, and if the two instruments spend more of their time trading phrases than coming together, so be it.
Ehnes and Armstrong visited a wide range of dynamics, and Ehnes had several opportunities to show off his amazing arm — especially in a long-held note that never changed character when he reversed bow direction.
A single movement by Brahms — the Sonatensatz he wrote at the age of 20 with Robert Schumann and Albert Dietrich as part of a joint Sonata project for Joseph Joachim — propelled the recital forward after intermission with its rhythmic energy and signature hemiolas.
In Ehnes’ hands, the sound of the nearly 300-year-old “ex-Vallot” Strad seemed to take on more depth and power as the repertoire moved forward chronologically, reaching a peak in John Corigliano’s 1963 Sonata. He wrote it for his father, who was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, but who resisted his son’s decision to become a composer and refused to play the piece until John Sr. and John Jr. achieved a rapprochement. It’s flashy, virtuosic, and irresistible. Ehnes and Armstrong each got a cadenza where they could step out as individuals, but otherwise they played complicated music with flawless unanimity.
The violin repertoire is flush with encore pieces, and Ehnes and Armstrong gave the energized audience two of them. Henri Wieniawski’s Scherzo-Tarantella and Pablo de Sarasate’s Zapateado are both showy, but this violin-piano duo treated them with the same musical reverence and controlled excitement they bestowed on Beethoven, Ravel, Brahms, and Corigliano.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 16, 2018.
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