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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47 “Kreutzer” [38:13]
Violin Sonata No. 6 in A, Op. 30/1 [23:33]
James Ehnes (violin)
Andrew Armstrong (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, December 2015 (9); Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouthshire, January 2016 (6)
Booklet notes in English, German & French
ONYX 4170 [61:57]

The recording of these Beethoven violin sonatas by James Ehnes and his long term musical partner Andrew Armstrong followed shortly after the sessions for their previous Onyx CD of sonatas by Debussy, Elgar and Respighi (review). You might guess that without the fine print, as the cover art on each CD suggests the same photo-shoot. Apart from the sepia tone now given to the new CD, the other matter of note is that its release date is a year later, presumably for commercial reasons. Timing, as they say, is everything. The broader point is that Ehnes and Armstrong, also with an earlier disc of Franck and Strauss sonatas under their belt, have become such a highly regarded team that this first foray into perhaps the greatest body of work in this genre inevitably begs the question: does this foreshadow a complete, but possibly protracted, survey?

For the present, though, the two sonatas on this disc. Ehnes leads the unmistakably Bachian Adagio sostenuto opening of the Kreutzer, with Armstrong entering firmly if rather politely at 0:25. As they accelerate into the Presto, one is acutely aware of what a well-oiled machine they’ve become. Here is a unanimity and cohesion of the very highest order, with perfectly calibrated dynamics, and impeccable finesse in tempo and touch; Ehnes’ deftly weighted pizzicatos at 6:31 and 11:29, for example, punctuating the movement’s flow. After a measured opening to the Andante, Ehnes and Armstrong get going with the variations on its theme, forging on into the Presto finale with the same controlled and nuanced precision that informs their whole reading.

But I’m tempted to ask: is this the way you like your Beethoven, and especially your Kreutzer? Here perhaps should be an impassioned dialogue, a debate even, between two strong musical protagonists. More than a little cut-and-thrust, you might say. If long familiarity is to their disadvantage, it’s that Ehnes and Armstrong for much of the time seem of a single mind and in furious agreement; highly polished interplay somehow lacking real tension. Sampling, say, Perlman and Ashkenazy, one is immediately conscious of two assertive but different voices in a robust but constructive discourse; likewise with Oistrakh/Oborin, and Schneiderhan/Kempff. Of more recent recordings, the Capuçon/Braley survey (review), which fellow reviewer Jonathan Woolf remarked was “not stamped with the heroism of performers” but “cut from a far more intimate cloth”, is perhaps a milder musical dialectic, but still powerfully characterised. For me, Ehnes and Armstrong, for all their exemplary musicianship and ensemble, are just a little too cultivated, too manicured.

The Op. 30/1 sonata is a somewhat different proposition, even though its original Presto finale instead concludes the Kreutzer. A work of great poise and classical grace, but with an emerging awareness of a new musical age, it is in a way atypical Beethoven, for once at peace with his world, uncommon in its tenderness, humour and compassion. Here the Ehnes/Armstrong accord works famously, performing the sonata with apt sensitivity and, where demanded, sonorous brilliance. The juxtaposition of moods and dynamics in the opening Allegro is made to sound entirely natural, and they bring to the Adagio molto espressivo movement everything you could imagine its direction means. Ehnes and Armstrong then complete their recital with a palpable sense of fun and joy in the Allegretto con variazioni finale.

The differences between the two sonatas extend on this occasion to the recording venues; Potton Hall for the Kreutzer, and the Wyastone Concert Hall for Op. 30/1. In each recording, there is a close balance, the violin centred against a wide piano image, but the Potton Hall sound is more intimate and present, less reverberant than that from the other, apparently larger, venue. But by any measure, the Onyx sound for both is impressively full-bodied and real.

An auspicious Beethoven recital, then, by two outstanding musicians whose consonance and synergy are once again to the fore. While their Kreutzer sonata could perhaps do with a little more cut-and-thrust, these are nonetheless impeccably executed performances. Can more Beethoven now be expected from Ehnes and Armstrong? I look forward with interest.

Des Hutchinson



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