Rockport’s Sandy Bay, even in Thursday’s rain and fog, provided a spectacular backdrop, replete with gulls, for an intimate concert evening in which Canadian violinist James Ehnes and American pianist Andrew Armstrong offered splendid takes on four of Beethoven’s violin-piano sonatas Thursday before a packed and attentive crowd at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. The sequence spanned the entire range of Beethoven’s ten from Opus 12, No. 3, in E-flat Major to the unique last Opus 96, in G Major. As an appetizer, Ehnes and the artistic director of the Rockport Music Festival, Barry Shiffman, hosted an enchanting and erudite pre-concert talk. Besides discussing the sonatas, Ehnes shared the odyssey of his Stradivarius and fielded questions.
From the start, the Ehnes-Armstrong duo emphasized the incomparable phrasing of the 3rd sonata (“for piano with the accompaniment of the violin”), reflecting its virtuosic yet classical Haydnesque lineage. Written in 1797-1798, its first movement—spirited, playful—displays a new type of equal partnership between the artists; the second, haunting, with delectable chromatics; and the third, well, a horserace of sorts. Ehnes and Armstrong have been playing together for more than a decade, and their seasoned, interactive collaboration resulted in a nearly flawless rendition.
Familiar to most, Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Opus 24, “Spring” (1800-1801), comes from a highly productive period for Beethoven. It would be easy to recall other performances, treasured recordings and to criticize, given the deep history of this sonata, dedicated with its pair, opus 23, to the banker Count Moritz von Fries. In all, the comfortable intent of the two musicians and the beauty of the composition was a happy combination that led the audience to applaud with ebullient appreciation.
By intermission, civil twilight had come and gone, and one could no longer watch the occasional herring gull pierce the fog, and the packed house eagerly returned for the relatively short Sonata No. 8, Opus 30, No.3, in G Major (1801-1802). The piece is often described as humorous, given its rustic melodies and rapid passages in the first and last movements. Consistent as the masterful execution was in this sonata, there might have been better balance in the middle tempo di minuetto movement.
The duo dispatched the closer with simultaneous excitement and intimacy. Beethoven dedicated Sonata Opus 96, No. 10, in G major (1812) to Archduke Rudolph, an experienced musician to whom Beethoven dedicated more works than to anyone else. The second movement unfolded nobly, with its hymn-like opening by the piano followed by the introduction of achingly beautiful melodies from the violin; the innovative partnership left us ravished. Ehnes evinced a sonorous tone for an imaginative first movement, an exquisite second, a sprightly third, and a wide-ranging finale. The range of sound and tones Ehnes draws from his 1715 Marsick Stradivarius reflects not only his depth as a musician, but also the largess of the brilliant instrument.
After this spirited and special recital, I was disappointed that Ehnes and Armstrong eschewed an encore, especially as the pre-concert discussion revealed that Ehnes occasionally offers one on piano. If you get the chance to hear these insightful and prodigious musicians, grab it!