Ehnes and Armstrong balance charm and depth in Beethoven program at Rockport

June 29, 2018 at 12:21 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

James Ehnes and Andrew Armstring performed Beethoven violin sonatas Thursday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Ben Ealovega

James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong performed Beethoven violin sonatas Thursday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Ben Ealovega

Thursday night’s Beethoven program from violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong stems from a happy accident.

Two years ago, the duo needed some last-minute music for a recording session, as a composer with whom they were acquainted had failed to deliver a commissioned piece on time. So Ehnes and Armstrong chose to play two Beethoven violin sonatas of similar key but widely different moods: the Sonata No. 9, “Kreutzer,” and Sonata No. 6.

The critically acclaimed recording enticed them to explore more of Beethoven’s sonatas. And Thursday night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, Ehnes and Armstrong delivered a program dedicated solely to four of these charming, intimate, and often exuberant works.

Beethoven wrote nine of his ten sonatas for violin and piano between 1797 and 1802. The four that Ehnes and Armstrong performed—Sonatas Nos. 3, 5, 8, and 10—show Beethoven taking the elegance of Mozart and Haydn and adding the fiery humor and twisting rhythmic torque that would come to define his later music. In these scores, ethereal passages coalesce suddenly into muscular statements, and everywhere there is a sense of the music being stretched to the limit.

For those reasons, many duos play these sonatas with a razor-sharp edge to the tone, perhaps to show just how much Beethoven’s style differs from his predecessors. But Ehnes and Armstrong took a nuanced approach, bringing smooth, tender lyricism and bold agitation into readings of firm direction and momentum.

Playing on his 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius, Ehnes spun a melody that seemed to change colors from silver to deep mahogany in the Sonata No. 3 in E-flat major. At the keyboard, Armstrong’s phrases were pristine, each passage imbued with subtle weight. Both musicians sculpted the Adagio with sinuous legatos.

The first movement of the Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major was a scene of hushed intensity, the lines crackling like flames. The duo’s accents and sudden crescendos peeked out of the texture before fading. Ehnes’ grainy sonority added bucolic verve to the finale, and the Minuetto flickered with shifting shades of light and shadow.

The Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major is called the “Spring” sonata due to its birdcall figures and overall joviality. Ehnes opened with sweeping musical gestures as Armstrong supported him with a feathery bed of sound. The Scherzo, with its staggered phrases between violin and piano, bounded like a village dance, and the Trio spun ever forward in a flurry of running figures. In the finale, Ehnes and Armstrong unleashed powerful accents and, elsewhere, settled into a congenial flow. In the second movement, one of Beethoven’s most beautiful melodies, Armstrong supported Ehnes with harmonies that were felt more than heard, and together their chromatic passages briefly titled the music towards darkness.

Similarly, their performance of the hymn-like slow movement of the Sonata No. 10 in G major bloomed. In the first movement, Ehnes wove Beethoven’s motives into a delicate fabric of sound. Armstrong adorned his phrases with plinking left hand trills. The Scherzo was more stately than driving, but the duo dove into the theme and variations of the finale with colorful effect. Armstrong’s figures in the fifth variation had a freedom of line that seemed to look ahead to Chopin. The brief fugue supplied dark mystery to the music before the duo delivered a beaming conclusion to bring the audience to its feet.

The next program of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival will feature the Brentano String Quartet and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo in music by Schubert, Ravel, Grainger, and Dvorák 8 p.m. Friday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.; 978-546-7391


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