The Strad Issue: January 2012
Description: Thrilling accounts from a player who has triumphed in Bartók ’s concertos
Musicians: James Ehnes (violin) Andrew Armstrong (piano)
According to the booklet this is the first volume of Bartók’s complete works for violin and piano. It doesn’t leave much for vol.2, but if it matches this one it’s worth looking forward to. James Ehnes brings to the two rhapsodies a superheated tonal intensity. He can be delicate of course, and has real rhythmic bite, but this is red-blooded playing, the bow quarrying into the string to match the rich and varied vibrato, and when Ehnes is in full flow high on the G string or dashing off handfuls of double-stops it’s thrilling stuff.
He is ably partnered on this well-balanced vivid recording by Andrew Armstrong, who comes into his own when they take their varied paths in the First Sonata. They spar tremendously through this tough and lengthy work, covering an extensive expressive and emotional range. The quiet central section of the first movement inhabits a strange, musing landscape of fluent, uneasy melodic shapes and figurations. From the long unaccompanied opening of the Adagio onwards, Ehnes weaves Bartók’s extended lines like spells. The hectic finale is terrific.
The less dense, astringent Second Sonata is full of beauty and nuanced tonal eloquence; the details captivate and have great cumulative power. The delightful early Andante provides a refreshing sorbet.