Saturday, 10 June 2017

James Ehnes, and Beethoven's Sonatas

For the past twenty years or so, I have followed the career of the violinist James Ehnes with interest. Just over ten years ago, I heard him live at a concert (playing the Shostakovich first violin concerto). I have many, or most of, his recordings. Looking at the most recent CD cover photo, I was struck by his physical resemblance to Jascha Heifetz: neat attire, clean shaven, immaculate short hair. On the concert platform also he resembles Heifetz's famous no-nonsense playing stance and facial expressions.

Like Heifetz, Ehnes is a superb and sophisticated player, with technique to burn as shown in his recent re-recording of the the 24 Paganini Capricci. Of course, Ehnes's playing sounds nothing like Heifetz's; no one's ever does. But the similarities between the two men are somewhat striking. As a loyal Ehnes fan, I bought his latest CD featuring Beethoven's violin and piano sonatas Opus 30 No.1, and Opus 47 (Kreutzer). The pianist is Andrew Armstrong, who does well, although I always get the impression that Beethoven's piano parts in these sonatas are less important than in many other duo sonatas by other composers. No problem with Armstrong, however, and no problem with the excellent Onyx recording. Like almost all violin and piano recordings, this one is best heard through good quality headphones rather than speakers; modern loudspeakers – at least in the quality range I can afford – are designed to give good bass response (which is what most music listeners pine for, it appears). Treble response is sacrificed, which means that the sound from the bass-heavy piano predominates over the sound from the treble-heavy violin.

It goes without saying that Ehnes's playing in these two sonatas is absolutely first rate, and it is difficult to find fault with him (or with Armstrong). It is a good lesson in sophisticated violin playing. Truly excellent versions of these two sonatas, in other words. I re-discovered the sad fact that I really do not enjoy the Kreutzer sonata; give me any of the other nine Beethoven sonatas in its place. I find it too long. The slow movement is a set of variations rather than one of Beethoven's sublime adagios; and it goes on for some sixteen minutes, with the whole sonata lasting nearly forty minutes – far too long for its subject matter, in my view, and I rarely enjoy Beethoven in his more aggressive moods. No fault of Ehnes and Armstrong, however!

No comments: