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James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong: playing favourites

04 November, 2022

These two old friends and musical partners share a deep and intimate connection on-stage and off – but even they can’t agree on which of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas is their favourite.

Written by Hugh Robertson

Canadian violinist James Ehnes and American pianist Andrew Armstrong have spent the last several years steeped in Beethoven’s musical world. The pair have been musical partners for many years, playing a wide range of repertoire, and since 2017 have recorded all ten of Beethoven’s magnificent Violin Sonatas.

These recordings have won a host of awards and been widely praised, Gramophone declaring “the conversation is spontaneous, the storytelling is packed with character,” and French magazine Diapason writing that Armstrong and Ehnes “converse as equals, underpinned by an irreproachable technique.”

In conversation, Ehnes seems almost ensorcelled by the works, as though he can’t quite put his finger on what makes them so magical. As with so much of Beethoven’s output, the works are stunning to hear, but once you get under the hood as a performer they reveal ever more intricacy.

“Andy and I would joke as we played them that whichever one we were playing at that moment, we would get the sneaking suspicion that was our favourite,” says Ehnes with a laugh’. “And then we would move onto the next one, and say, ‘Oh, no, it’s got to be this one.’”

“As a cycle it’s certainly not as complete in terms of showing all that Beethoven was capable of as the piano sonatas, or much less the string quartets. They are mostly reasonably early pieces, and yet I feel that each one of them really has something quite magical and special about it. I could talk about any one of them and tell you – and hopefully be convincing – about why it is an important piece.”

“If you were to point to a pivot in Beethoven’s compositional life, it would be No.10, Op.96. If you were to talk about a piece of high Romantic, virtuosic excess, you would point at the Ninth Sonata. And if you had to pick one sonata that really changed the genre into a true large-scale duo format, then it would probably be the First Sonata, Op.12 No.1.”

“Beethoven was not one to ease into anything. If you think of the Op. 12 sonatas, the Op. 1 trios, the Op. 2 piano sonatas, the Op. 5 cello sonatas – the very first example that he did in any genre was longer, more complicated, more virtuosic, and just more than anything that came before it.

“What kind of attitude did this guy have to say, ‘Well you know one thing I can do, but now I’m going to do something completely different. And now I am going to do something completely different from that.’”

It’s fascinating to hear Ehnes speak about the technical challenges of Beethoven’s violin pieces, and the way he wrote so idiomatically for the instrument. When we think of Beethoven we think of the great pianist-composer, sawing the legs off his instrument so he could feel the vibrations as his hearing continued to fail. But the magic of the Violin Sonatas is that both pianist and violinist are stretched to their limits – and are often called upon to play like the other!

“They are so incredibly challenging from an interpretive standpoint, and from a technical standpoint too: first, the interpretive question is, ‘When are the instruments imitative, and when are they complementary?’ Because of course, fundamentally, they are very, very different, but clearly sometimes he is asking for very direct imitation. And to play the piano like a violin – or to play the violin like a piano – is not easy!

It’s something that Andrew and I have really enjoyed, I think there are times, particularly in the Kreutzer, where he is writing so specifically music for a violin, or music for a piano, and the way that he will write things in different ways for the two instruments. But then you think of some of the early sonatas, where they are so imitative. And I think of some of the magical things that Andy has done with those parts, where he has really paid attention to some of the incredibly intricate articulation that is written into the piano parts, to be played like bowings – as if it wasn’t complicated enough!”

“We talk about that a lot when we are rehearsing. There will be things where an attack on the piano has to be a certain way, and if the violin is going to imitate that you have to understand that. And similarly, there are things where we are trying to find the key to pianistic articulation, and I have to say, ‘Andy, you have to play it like it is a bowing’ – because it is! It’s a bowing for a non-bowed instrument, how impractical is that?”

“Andrew has said that there are things in these violin sonatas that he finds to be more difficult than any of the piano sonatas. It’s just great stuff, and I never tire of them.”

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