Review: Ehnes, Armstrong offer refined performance of Beethoven sonatas

James Ehnes. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Beethoven’s 250th birthday is coming up in 2020, but many music organizations have been celebrating early.

How it’s possible, or practical, to give even more attention to a figure who is already — according to regular surveys — the most programmed and performed Western classical composer is a topic for another article. Let me simply propose that Barbara Strozzi’s 400th birthday, and Clara Schumann’s 200th, might perhaps be far more deserving of special, exuberant commemoration.   

This year’s Chamberfest, to its credit, is honouring Strozzi and Schumann with their own concerts. Strozzi had her day last Friday, while a “Clara Schumann Birthday Mashup” is taking place Aug. 7 at 1 p.m., with the Gryphon Trio, the Manhattan Chamber Players, soprano Emili Losier, uOttawa musicologist Julie Pednault-Deslauriers, and host Eric Friesen But not surprisingly, Chamberfest is throwing its biggest party for Beethoven, with a mini fest-within-a-fest called Essential Beethoven.

Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Pianist Hinrich Alpers performed 17 of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, spread out in two gigantic recitals of over three hours each. Meanwhile, violinist James Ehnes and his frequent collaborator, pianist Andrew Armstrong presented their own Beethoven marathons, playing all 10 violin sonatas in two concerts. 

On Wednesday night at Dominion-Chalmers, Ehnes and Armstrong tackled the first five — the three from Op. 12, along with Op. 23 and 24. It’s interesting to compare their interpretation with that of another, younger powerhouse duo, Andrew Wan and Charles Richard-Hamelin, who have also been recording and touring with these works. 

Where Wan and Richard-Hamelin focus on Beethoven’s earthy, extreme temperament, playing with fire-and-brimstone virtuosity, huge dynamic scope, and the element of surprise, Ehnes and Armstrong perform the same scores with mature refinement, tender emotion, and perfect balance between the intellectual and the spiritual. 

Highlights were the theme and variations second movement from the first sonata, wide-eyed and sensitive; the twinkling humour and geniality of Sonata no. 3; and their restive, brooding Sonata No. 4. Armstrong’s clear, slightly dry sound and firm phrasing paired well with Ehnes’ warm, honeyed tone, subtle shadings and meticulous articulation. 

Ehnes and Armstrong will perform sonatas 6-10, including the famous “Kreutzer,” at the same venue on Aug. 2 at 1 p.m.

Share Post
Written by

Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.