Concert Review

James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong: Duo masters Beethoven
Chamber Music Kelowna
Jan 23, 2020

Chamber Music Kelowna certainly hit the right chord on Monday night, welcoming back two outstanding musicians to the stage at the Mary Irwin Theatre; violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong.

Ehnes is no stranger to Kelowna audiences having made three previous appearances with Chamber Music Kelowna, and has the distinction of being the Honorary Patron for the organization’s 40th anniversary season in 2019-20.

Returning to the stage alongside Ehnes was his long-time colleague and friend, pianist Andrew Armstrong. The program consisted of three of Beethoven’s celebrated sonatas for violin and piano, which were the perfect repertoire match for these two incredible musicians.

Those patrons lucky enough to score tickets to this memorable concert were most certainly awed not only by Ehnes’ gorgeous tone and flawless technique, but by the versatility and clarity of Armstrong’s playing as well. The Steinway piano on the stage at the Rotary Centre for the Arts sounded like a completely different instrument under Armstrong’s fingers and it is unfortunate that Kelowna lacks a grand piano equal to the calibre of such an artist.

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 30 No. 1 opened the program. Written in 1802, this work pre-dates the tumultuous phase Beethoven was about to enter as he struggled to come to terms with his increasing deafness. An absolute master of dynamic contrast, Beethoven crafts every phrase with meticulous detail and Armstrong and Ehnes navigated this witty work with ease and virtuosity.

The first half continued with the Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2. Considerably more brooding and dramatic than the previous six sonatas, this work is almost symphonic in scope given its four-movement structure. Of special note was the Adagio cantabile movement played with tender poise by both musicians.

The Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”) consumed the entire second half of the program. This massive work is a culmination of Beethoven’s efforts through his 10 violin sonatas to establish the piano and violin as equal partners (in many cases even allocating the piano a more significant role than the violin), which deviated significantly from the treatment of the form by his predecessors.

Although dedicated to the great French violinist Rudolf Kreutzer, this sonata was ironically never actually performed by him.

As Ehnes elaborated on in his onstage remarks, upon receiving the manuscript Kreutzer pronounced it “extraordinarily incomprehensible” and promptly filed it away.

This work demands concerto-like virtuosity and stamina from both players and despite its extravagant structure, it also contains plenty of nuance and intimate conversation between piano and violin which was masterfully captured by Ehnes and Armstrong.

After an immediate standing ovation, the duo returned to play the slow movement, Adagio molto espressivo, from Beethoven’s beloved Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24 (“Spring”).

Sandra Wilmot is a Kelowna-based freelance musician, composer, educator, and violin instructor. She plays professionally with the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra and is on faculty at the Kelowna Community Music School.