James Ehnes

Review: James Ehnes | Cliburn Concerts | Kimbell Art Museum, Renzo Piano Pavilion

Devil in the Details

For the Cliburn Foundation, violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong give an oddly uninspired performance at the Kimbell Art Museum.

published Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes

Fort Worth — On Thursday evening at the Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum, the Cliburn Foundation presented violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong.

Before each work, Ehnes provided insightful, articulate, and often humorous commentary regarding each piece’s performance. This worked well to bring the audience into his musical thinking. He began by relaying the famous story of how Giusppe Tartini was inspired to compose his Sonata in G minor, “The Devil’s Trill.” It is a fun story of how in a dream Tartini heard the devil playing the violin. Upon awaking, he fashioned the piece from what he could remember.

This sonata is in the typical Baroque form called the Sonata da Camera. A slow introductory movement introduces a Gavotte followed by a movement of slow-fast alterations. Fritz Kreisler arranged this sonata’s original continuo accompaniment into a decent piano part while making a few alterations to the violin. This work’s popularity today is thanks to, if not the memorable name, Kreisler’s modernization of the piece.

One thing was immediately noticeable within a few measures of this first work on the program: Ehnes’ singing, penetrating tone, which was full of warmth. The pianist began with an equally warm and rich sound that supported well the violin. However, from the second movement to the end of the work, the piano accompaniment began to fade into a generic and quiet background. Many opportunities to work with Ehnes dynamic flow and articulations were wasted with too much pedal and a lackluster presence of sound. The times that Armstrong opened up were wonderful and never covered the violin sound. One wished he had kept it up. For the piece to have achieved its full effect, more teamwork was needed. A bright spot was the devilishly difficult cadenza pushed forward with grace and panache. Ehnes was masterful at maintaining his warm sound and ear for intonation in spite of the challenges presented by the score.

Photo: Olivier Wilkins
Pianist Andrew Armstrong

The highlight of the evening’s performance came at the end of the first half with the C major solo violin sonata of J.S.Bach. Intended to be performed without accompaniment, Bach employs a number of tactics to give the illusion of polyphony. Like a person shining a torch around a dark room, single elements of harmony and texture are revealed for brief moments at a time. It is on this that the tension and drama of the piece are built. Ehnes never once let the direction of various lines drop from our memories when jumping back and forth between the elements of texture.

Armstrong returned with Ehnes to the stage after intermission for a performance of Rêverie et caprice, Op. 8 by Hector Berlioz. The material for this work was taken from an aria written for his early opera, Benvenuto Cellini. Again, there seemed to be a bit of musical disagreement between the two musicians. Ehnes’ playing lurched and pleaded with swell and decline, perfectly in line with the manic-depressive nature of Berlioz’ theatrical style. But any time something potentially interesting happened in the piano part, Armstrong shied away as if he were afraid of being heard. This dichotomy of tonal concept persisted throughout, confusing the musical message.

The last piece on the program was the Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano by César Franck. Its first movement moves easily along in a lilting 9/8 meter. What it lacks in melodic development it makes up for in harmonic variety supporting beautiful melodic material. The measures that serve as the introduction to the piece reveal in a subtle way Franck’s tendency for external and internal relevance to harmonic structure within each movement. The moving notes of the pianist’s right hand form first a third followed by a fourth, a fifth, and finally a sixth.

With no surprise, the sound from the violin was beautiful and the piano sound quiet and muffled. It was here that the listener was finally tired of hearing the same imbalance used for each of the other pieces. To this was added a fairly lethargic tempo. Each time the main theme appeared in the first movement, it was treated exactly the same in spite of changes in harmonic context. The end result was one of meandering rather than communicative direction.

However, it was the final movement that saw the most disturbing moments. The movement begins with a long canon on a light, bucolic melody established by the piano. Both elusive and direct references eventually are made to each of the previous movements in building momentum toward the end of the piece. While the first notes of piano sang out, it was immediately covered by the violin’s entrance. The violin should have been a light echo of the piano part at this point. This because of an important structural shift later in the movement where the violin takes control. However, with the piano not willing to assert its crucial role, the movement fell flat in this performance. But the most troubling aspect of this finale was in what should have been a gut wrenching reappearance of the third movement’s climactic material before layering many previously appearing bits and pieces atop one another in a final statement of rhetorical fire (a device often used by Prokofiev). The material is meant to draw the listener back to a prior stage of structure’s discourse in preparation for the end of the work. Because such slow tempi were chosen by tonight’s performers for this material previously, a break in the tempo (and thus a break in the direction) had to be employed to accommodate the now relatively quick tempo. This killed the forward thrust the ending of the work demands.

There is no doubt that this is professional playing. However, a depth of understanding was not adequately conveyed to the audience. Because the works performed on this recital are so familiar to audiences, one would expect a world-class violinist to reveal a new creation in either direct interpretation or through the inspired juxtaposition of selections. A warm, silky tone is enough to wow for a few minutes, but relying entirely upon a particular sound concept to create sufficient musical drama to bring us to a new world of understanding simply did not work. A better cooperation between the violinist and pianist would have forced more deliberate and musical decision making.

As an encore, Ehnes and Armstrong returned to the stage to perform the Romanian Folk Songs of Béla Bartók. Thanks For Reading

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Devil in the Details
For the Cliburn Foundation, violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong give an oddly uninspired performance at the Kimbell Art Museum.
by Zachariah Stoughton

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