James Ehnes

The virtuoso Canadian violinist, featured on our December cover CD, talks of his life-long relationship with Prokofiev’s music

Your recording of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata was made live at the Wigmore Hall earlier this year, and you made a commercial recording of the Sonata for Analekta back in 2000. Has your interpretation of the work developed since then?

It’s actually one of the first major violin sonatas that I ever learned – I was maybe 13 when I first played it. It’s a piece that from the very first time I heard it as a kid I fell in love with. So it’s always played a major part in my life and in my repertoire. As far as trying to analyse how I play it now as opposed to how I may have played it nine or ten years ago – it’s not that the piece means any more to me now than it did then because it couldn’t possibly, but who I am now is different, and so I would say that throughout my life my take on pieces will change as my personality changes.

Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 was originally written for flute and then he arranged it with some help from David Oistrakh as a violin work. How violinistic do you think the final result is?

I think it’s just miraculously well-written for the violin. I would consider it one of the most well-written violin sonatas, regardless of the fact it originally existed as a Flute Sonata. It’s always amazed me how idiomatic it is and how, without making significant changes to the character of the piece and to the melodic line, Prokofiev made it so well-suited to the violin.

So what makes it so well-suited to the violin?

There are qualities of virtuosic filigree that the violin and the flute share, as well as long, beautiful melodic lines. I don’t mean to imply that it lies terribly well in the hands – there are certainly things that are very difficult to play, but I think that the way these passages work shows the violin off to its best advantage. You can find violin writing in other pieces that is awkward and somehow unrewarding – where it might be difficult but it doesn’t particularly sound impressive or even all that interesting; whereas in Prokofiev’s Sonata the parts that sound difficult are the parts which are difficult, which I think makes the piece come across very naturally. I think that is a sign of very, very good writing.

You can really hear you’re doing acrobatics, in effect, on the violin.

Yes, exactly. And the violin and piano parts are so evenly balanced. If I may be so bold, I think the violin version allows the piano to perhaps shine a little bit more – because the violin part is thickened out with the addition of double-stopped chords, the piano can play out more. So to an extent I think the violin version is an improvement!

Interview by Daniel Jaffé

Audio clip: Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 2 – Allegro con brio

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December 2009
Meet the Artist: Nelson Goerner
Meet the Artist: Kirill Karabits