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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Violin Sonata in G minor (1916) [13.13]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Sonata in E minor (1919) [26.18]
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Violin Sonata in B minor (1917) [26.06]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
(1915) [2.44]
James Ehnes (violin); Andrew Armstrong (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 2-4 June 2015; 5 December 2015 (Sibelius).
ONYX 4159 [68.56]

The Debussy Sonata is generally a sunny work but written in the depths of the Great War. It was to be Debussy’s last major work. He discovered he had cancer and he suffered some close bereavements. In the summer of 1915 he began to compose while staying on the Normandy coast. In addition to this Violin Sonata he was also to write sonatas for cello and piano and for flute, viola and harp in this final creative outburst. Debussy himself played the Sonata that summer including two performances in Biarritz in September which were to be his last public appearances.

The opening movement of the Sonata is typically elusive. One is initially entranced with what sounds like a revisit to that faun’s languid afternoon in dappled sunlit woods. That's before the music varies between introspection and swirling animation with an exotic ending that might suggest Arabian nights. The second movement, marked Intermède: Fantasque et léger, beguiles with gypsy rhythms, jazzy syncopations and coy expressions from the violin. The Très animé Finale is just that. Piano ripples support a capricious violin now pensive, now coy, now teasing, the piano at length admonishing such wilful behaviour. There are moments of lyricism and evocations of bird chirruping. Charmingly performed, witty and poetic.

It has been noticed by some observers that there is a palpable connection between Debussy and Elgar in the context of the elusive, mysterious quality of the central Romance: Andante movement of Elgar’s E minor Violin Sonata. Its middle section foreshadows the composer’s cello concerto’s slow movement. Ehnes’s violin sings in its low register then briefly rises like some lark to its heights before falling again. The opening movement shows passion and vigour while the finale was described by Elgar, himself, as very broad and soothing like the last movement of his Second Symphony. The Sonata is taken at a relaxed pace allowing the music to breathe and express its autumnal beauty. A notable performance to be compared with the very best in a competitive field.

The considerable 28-minute Sonata in B minor for Violin and Piano is a mature work in Respighi’s fully developed harmonic language. Composed in 1917, it soon became his best-known chamber work. Many artists championed it including Jascha Heifetz. The concluding Passacaglia was particularly admired - a fine example of the composer’s polished craft. Its expansive romantic melodies have immediate appeal. The first movement is resolved within a conventional sonata form, its mood profoundly introspective. The beautiful middle cantabile movement begins with dreamy, rippling piano figures. The violin joins to sing sadly, resignedly, the mood becoming more intense in a passionately expressive central Appassionato. This movement is particularly beautiful and heart-felt on this recording. Jeremy Nicholas’s notes for this album make much of Brahms' influence on this Sonata and he may well have a point especially considering that the Passacaglia, which might have been influenced by the last movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, and parts of the central Andante, do have a Brahms-like charisma. This new recording must now take its place as the best reading of this work now available.

Finally Sibelius's charming and brief Berceuse rounds things off.

A well-conceived programme in first class performances.

Ian Lace



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