Violinist James Ehnes is a beguiling soloist. He plays with a rich, warm tone, coaxing a range of colours with such understated poise, he could be doing something as everyday as buttering a piece of toast. His musicianship is a sight to see. Stylish, sophisticated, and charmingly self-effacing.
His performance of the Elgar Violin Sonata (one of three) was the highlight of the first half.
Ehnes seemed to play with an objectivity usually devoid from performances in the UK where expectations are projected onto the English romantic, nostalgia sometimes skewing critical assessment.
There was something powerful about the geography of the performance. Here in the centre of Europe, Elgar stands shoulder to shoulder with other European composers – even with the Brahmsian influences in the first movement and Cesar Franck’s in the last – in a way that he doesn’t seem to so much back home.
Maybe that’s something to do with my nationality and me needing to be more objective when I’m listening, but here in Verbier Ehnes’ performance gave me a fresh perspective on Elgar’s tonal palette.
The second movement is built on a conversation between old and new – a fascinating recit-like subject with an awkward clunky feel, contrasted with a brighter, more insistent forward-looking musical idea. I was completely drawn by the interplay between the two.
This movement in particular – the exchange between Ehnes and pianist Julien Quentin – was compelling. Ehnes’ deft ability at summoning up a sense of stillness and tranquillity by crafting breathy sounds in the lower strings was heart-stopping. Loved it.
Performers: James Ehnes (violin), Julien Quentin (piano)
Pictures: Aline Paley / Verbier Festival 2017