Lean and Lyrical – A Recital by James Ehnes

Sporting his abundantly resonant 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius, violinist James Ehnes, with the keyboard collaboration of Orion Weiss, presented a fine display of lyricism and virtuosity in his program for Chamber Music San Francisco at the JCC Palo Alto, Monday, February 12. Often labeled “the Heifetz of today,” Mr. Ehnes intoned the music of Beethoven, Poulenc, and Richard Strauss less with the burnished Heifetz wizardry than with the lean, elegantly virile style of Heifetz’s most apt and commercially successful protégé, Erick Friedman. 

Ehnes and Weiss opened with Beethoven’s 1797 Violin Sonata in D Major, Op. 12, No. 1, which Ehnes claimed in his introductory remarks as revealing the composer “fully formed” in terms of his compositional skills. Only superficially indebted to the Classical protocols of Mozart and Haydn -and despite their dedication to Salieri – the Op. 12 quickly announces Beethoven’s assertive style, evenly pairing the instruments so that balance of texture reigns even in the midst of emotional or dramatic outpourings. The first movement Allegro con brio proved the most audacious, with a kind of antiphonal development that suddenly comes to an abrupt halt, in the manner of one of Haydn’s jokes. A moment of diversion from Ehnes, however, the progression into F Major, led us back to a vigorous, rounded coda in the home key. Two themes marked the progress of the Tema con variazioni, which had violin and piano switching leading roles in a poignant and expressive movement in which Ehnes’ parlando proved effective. The next-to-last variant, in A Minor, indicated the youthful composer’s power of melody, and the last variation landed calmly in the major. A Beethoven signature, the last movement Rondo: Allegro in 6/8 proffered high spirits, rife with sforzando markings and syncopations, paid more homage to Haydn’s rustic sensibilities, cheerful and unabashedly exuberant.

The most unusual moment of programming came in the form of Francis Poulenc’s 1943 Violin Sonata, dedicated to the memory of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, most grievously executed by fascists.  Both tragic and chaste, the Sonata often invites comparison with Stravinsky’s neo-Classic style, with angular melodies and a somber cast. The opening Allegro con fuoco evinced bitter, percussive chords from Orion Weiss, while Ehnes waxed melancholic and occasionally inflamed. If anything of Spain could be said to infiltrate the music, it came in the Intermezzo, in which Ehnes followed the repeated chords of Weiss with pizzicato gestures reminiscent of muted guitars. Passionate but emotionally askew, the music combines rapture and bitter melancholy, concluding with a detached glissando riff from Ehnes that led to the Presto tragico last movement. Lyric but fraught with a cold fire, the weird progression embraced a distinct solo for each instrument, only to resolve in a slow, funereal tempo, Strictement plus le double que lent, much reminiscent of Debussy but still dallying with Poulenc’s smug cosmopolitanism. What seemed like a sarcastic jab of an epilogue suddenly erupted in one, last shout of outrage.

The second half of the formal concert consisted of one work, the 1887 Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18 of Richard Strauss, which aside from his Op. 11 Horn Concerto No. 1 and his contemporaneous Don Juan, marks the definition of his true voice.  Rife with big gestures, the piano opened the work, Allegro ma non troppo, whose main theme drove most of the movement’s progression. If Beethoven served as an architectural model, certainly Wagner more than once supplied harmonic combinations. Ehnes, moreover, proffered a secondary, lyrical theme in B-flat Major, espressivo e appassionato,that could stand with any worthy outpouring of Brahms and Schubert. The second movement, Intermezzo, may have meant to serve as an improvisation in the intimate Schumann style, but its carefully detailed melos likely marked the composer’s blossoming feelings for his wife Pauline. Schubert’s song Erlkoenig appears, as does a direct reference to Beethoven’s Op. 13 Pathetique Sonata. The Finale: Andante – Allegro clearly intended operatic and symphonic gestures, moving from grim, lachrymose introductory chords to Ehnes’ explosive 16th notes that remind us somewhat of the even more youthful Op. 8 Violin Concerto.  The sudden changes of emotional direction had our thinking of Don Juan in chamber music transposition, soaring and emotionally bombastic while still insisting on its passionate sincerity.

With no introduction, Ehnes and Weiss went into their three prepared encores: the first, Rimsky-Korsakov’s eternal Bumble-Bee in spitfire figures. The second, a lovely salon piece by Jean Sibelius, Berceuse, Op. 79, No. 6, what Ehnes proclaimed as a piece of romantic intimacy that seems to have passed from contemporary performance. Finally, having announced his affection for Itzhak Perlman, Ehnes broke into Sarasate’s fiery Zapateado, Op. 23, No. 2, a wild dance meant to capture the tap and snap of the dancer’s shoes, marked by staccato and spiccato figures in rapid succession, a brilliant evocation of flamenco and deep song. Here, Ehnes entered into the starry pantheon of bold virtuosi like Ruggiero Ricci as well as Perlman, whose wizardry embraces the folk and national idioms with as much relish as any of the exalted classics.


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