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Ehnes Takes on More Bartók

This article was first published at The Classical Review on March 26, 2012.

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Bartók, Works for Violin and Piano, Vol. 1, J. Ehnes, A. Armstrong

(released on January 31, 2012)
CHAN 10705 | 80'30"
Canadian violinist James Ehnes is one of the most technically accomplished musicians playing today. The appeal of his performances, however, goes beyond the fireworks produced by his hands to the ideas infused into the music by his vivid musical intelligence.

He was even able to draw consistent musical interest from the sometimes vapid technical drudgery of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, which he recorded for a second time a couple years ago (Onyx; first recording for Telarc, in 2003). Now, for Chandos, he has embarked on what may turn out to be the go-to set of Bartók’s works for violin and piano.

One of the ways Ehnes lifts himself above some of the competition is by appealing to the completist streak in record buyers. He opened his Bartók traversal with an excellent recording of the composer’s two Violin Concertos last year, packaged ingeniously with a fine performance of the Viola Concerto.

Likewise, this new disc is the first volume of a promised complete set of Bartók’s works for violin and piano. With the partnership of earnestly talented pianist Andrew Armstrong, the selection of works -- the two sonatas with piano as main courses, with a sampler of smaller pieces -- receive performances that get to the heart of this music, both its savage and suave sides.

The most substantial work on the disc is the extended first Violin Sonata, in which Bartók reconciles his study of folk music and embracing of atonality.

Ehnes and Armstrong give an air of mystery to the slow section in the middle of the extended first movement of the First Sonata, the nocturnal murk of Bartók’s “night music” style. Ehnes draws out a deliciously sweet tone on the long, unaccompanied passages in the slow movement, lending an air of ethereal quiet. He plays the 1715 Ex-Marsick Stradivarius, a rather exquisite instrument loaned to him by the mathematician and instrument collector David L. Fulton, whose generosity made possible Ehnes’s 2008 recital disc Homage (Onyx), on which the violinist played 12 extraordinary instruments in Fulton’s collection.

The appeal of this disc is further enhanced by a savant booklet essay by Bartók scholar Paul Griffiths. He lays out the evolution of the style of the composer’s writing for the violin and unpicks what is happening harmonically and melodically in these works, especially drawing connections to the barbaric, disturbing score for the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (also completed around the time of the two sonatas, in the early 1920s). As Griffiths notes, the Second Sonata often sounds like a more compact rethinking of the First, and Ehnes and Armstrong bring out all of its sometimes grotesque contradictions, the Stravinsky-like motoric drive, the folk-inspired dance patterns, and barbaric violence.

The only reservation about Ehnes is that occasionally his cerebral approach misses some of the daringness showed by someone like Isabelle Faust, whose all-Bartók disc for Harmonia Mundi is the most important recent competition. To that, one should add, for authority, the immortal live recording by Joseph Szigeti and Béla Bartók himself, made at the Library of Congress. It contains only the Second Sonata and First Rhapsody, combined with Debussy and an epic performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, but it is still a must-have.

The little Andante in A major must be listed among the composer’s juvenilia -- a “salon morsel” as Griffiths puts it -- but it is the sort of piece the completist will want to hear. The performances of the two Rhapsodies emphasize the light, even humorous side of folk dance they incorporate, a mixture of Romanian and Hungarian styles -- both pieces were composed in 1928, after parts of Hungary, including the Transylvanian village where Bartók was born, had, in the aftermath of World War I, become part of Romania.

The perky main theme of the second movement of Rhapsody No. 1 sounds a lot like the Shaker tune Simple Gifts set by Copland, another reminder of the importance of folk music in Bartók’s music. The composer revisited this movement to give the end of this dreamy, Haydnesque movement a more barbaric sound.

As usual for Chandos, this disc is rendered in excellent sound, captured in Potton Hall in Dunwich, Suffolk, and engineered by Ben Connellan.

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