Exquisite Beethoven from Ehnes and Armstrong to open Winter Chamber Music Festival

Sat Jan 11, 2020 at 12:25 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong performed music of Beethoven Friday night in Evanston. Photo: Ben Ealovega

December 2020 will mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. While many local ensembles started the celebrations early at the beginning of the current season, now that the calendar has flipped the commemorations have justifiably kicked up a notch.

Friday night at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston, Northwestern University’s annual Winter Chamber Music Festival opened in the sestercentennial spirit, with violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong offering their second of three installments of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas. (The first recital took place as part of last year’s festival.)

Ehnes and Armstrong are longtime recital partners, and throughout this year are offering the complete Beethoven Sonatas in a variety of international venues, in addition to recording them. Friday’s concert demonstrated the deep familiarity that can only be cultivated from living with repertoire in an immersive way, the two men offering fresh, compelling accounts of Beethoven’s watershed works.

The first half comprised Sonatas 1 and 3, both from the composer’s Op. 12 of 1798. This is Beethoven on the eve of his “Heroic” period, and while the works remain outwardly Classical in style, there are definite adumbrations of the fireworks to come.

The opening Allegro con brio of Sonata No. 1 in D Major launched with an emphatic sweeping gesture, Ehnes and Armstrong perfectly in sync at the evening’s outset as throughout. There was a sense of motion in this first movement, though the pair could easily marshal the requisite jaggedness when called for.

The Tema con variationi began with an unassuming melody, that came to be elaborated in airborne arabesques from Ehnes and was ultimately recast in forceful outbursts from Armstrong. The off-kilter accents of the Rondo brought Beethoven’s first foray in yet another genre he would redefine to a jovial conclusion.

Sonata No. 3 in E-flat Major followed and was similarly stylish. The flowing Allegro con spirito went graciously, interrupted by moments of angular figuration, which Ehnes and Armstrong negotiated expertly. The glowing central episode of the central Adagio con molto espressione had a reverential, spiritual quality, and the propulsive Rondo featured easy, unstrained power from both players.

Perhaps the Presto that opens the first movement of Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23, could have  been more driven, but the movement’s dramatic eruptions still had apt guttural impact. The Andante scherzoso, più allegretto showed Beethoven as one of the first great minimalists (think of the Fifth Symphony), as he turns a two-note germ into playful, imitative dialogue, which the players put forth with abundant charm. The energetic final Allegro molto went with abandon with fiery pyrotechnics from Ehnes, before ultimately dying out, its emotional reserves spent.

The “Spring” Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, brought the evening to a close. The verdant Allegro breathed easily, its winding sixteenth notes impeccably unified between Ehnes and Armstrong throughout. The two musicians spun long, elevated lines in the Adagio molto espressivo, and the laconic Scherzo—the first ever composed in a violin sonata—had an appealing coy mirth. The Rondo rolled gently, the seasoned recital partners clearly enjoying the craft they have jointly cultivated.

Ehnes’ playing in particular is remarkable, not just for what is present but also for what is not. Throughout the evening one could not perceive a single awkward bow change or any ragged double-stops. He is also able to fill a hall with his silvery tone without the slightest evidence of force or strain.

At the curtain call Ehnes elicited laughs by asking the audience, “Anyone want to hear some Beethoven?”

As an encore he and Armstrong offered a preview of their Sunday program, playing the Adagio molto espressivo from Sonata No. 6 in A Major. This slightly later music is perhaps more reflective that Beethoven’s earlier efforts, with greater emotional ambiguity. Ehnes and Armstrong projected these qualities eloquently, ending the superb evening on an inward note, Ehnes’ pizzicati and Armstrong’s final chord warmly fading away.

Northwestern’s Winter Chamber Music Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Pick-Staiger Hall, when Ehnes and Armstrong will wrap their Beethoven cycle with Sonatas Nos. 6, 8, and 9. music.northwestern.edu

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