James Ehnes performs Violin Sonatas by Elgar, Debussy and Resphighi

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COMPOSERS: Debussy & Respighi; plus Sibelius: Pensées lyriques – Berceuse,Elgar
LABELS: Onyx
ALBUM TITLE: Violin Sonatas
WORKS: Sonatas by Elgar, Debussy & Respighi; plus Sibelius: Pensées lyriques – Berceuse
PERFORMER: James Ehnes (violin), Andrew Armstrong (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Onyx ONYX 4159

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This is a radiantly engineered album of music composed around the time of the Great War, played with beguiling eloquence by James Ehnes and regular playing partner Andrew Armstrong. Their previous Onyx disc was an outstanding coupling of the Strauss and Franck Sonatas. Debussy wrote his Violin Sonata while he was undergoing treatment for cancer; he described himself as a ‘walking corpse’. The neo-classical score, signed ‘musicien français’, that emerged possesses a stream-of-consciousness other-worldliness made possible (at least in part) by the generous doses of morphine he was receiving at the time. Ehnes and Armstrong capture the Sonata’s meticulously fashioned amorphousness to perfection, free-floating one minute then reining us back in the next.

After conjuring up a tantalising dreamscape for Debussy, Ehnes and Armstrong move on to the Elgar Sonata and reveal a composer returning to his (late) Brahmsian roots, juxtaposing ideas of searing emotional intensity with time-suspending moments of moving reflection. By gently lightening the elusive central movement’s emotional payload, they create the impression of a wistful intermezzo recalling the warm glow of an era then all but extinguished by the terrors of the Great War.

Yet it is their haunting performance of the Respighi Sonata that resonates longest in the memory here. Avoiding any sense of ‘Richard Strauss-without-the-tunes’, Ehnes and Armstrong trace the music’s high-octane emotional changeability with a compelling sense of emotional narrative, although even they cannot quite conceal the paucity of truly memorable ideas en route.

Sibelius’s enchanting miniature Berceuse brings this outstanding recital to a poignant close.

Julian Haylock

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