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GRAMOPHONE (06/2022)
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Reviewer :
Rob Cowan

Last June I reviewed James Ehnes’s superb recordings of Ysaÿe’s Solo Violin Sonatas, recorded at his home over a few evenings in the wee small hours. During those same intense sessions Ehnes was also tackling Bach’s solo violin works, which I’m delighted to be welcoming in this review. Now as then, every bar has been thoughtfully pondered, yet the performances are never spoilt by stultifying over-preparation. For example, note the long-breathed phrasing of the First Sonata’s opening Adagio, each chord drawn out for all its worth, the tone full and strong. The fugue is forcefully argued, while the Siciliana is just that, a gently swaying dance rather than a custom-built ‘slow movement’ (which it isn’t). As for the brilliant closing Presto, if heard live on form like this Ehnes would no doubt bring the house down. In the First Partita I love the way he quietens his tone at the start of the Allemanda’s second half, marking a significant change in colour.


Ehnes does not in general embellish repeats, which is not to say that he plays identically both times around. The Sarabande wears an appropriately noble demeanour and Ehnes rounds things off with energetic accounts of the Bourrée and its rapid mirror-image Double. Immaculate trills help characterise the emotionally outreaching Grave that opens the Second Sonata, with an intensified expressivity and an unusually wide dynamic range. The fugue that follows is unhurried and trenchantly accented, the self-accompanied Andante con moto third movement evenly balanced between top and subsidiary lines. It’s a flexible, deeply felt reading, possibly the set’s highlight (the beginning of the second half is rapturously beautiful) and the deftly played ‘echo’ Allegro that closes the sonata is extremely effective.

The D minor Partita, with its majestic closing Chaconne, is the cycle’s centrepiece and Ehnes opens the work with a variously coloured and generously paced Allemanda. The Sarabande too is movingly played, whereas in Ehnes’s hands the Corrente and Giga epitomise the spirit of the dance. The Chaconne itself becomes an animated ritual, its only agenda to re-enact an ancient dance form with consistent solemnity and occasional flashes of brilliance (intimacy too at 7'34" and the lead-in to the uplifting home straight), roles that Ehnes fulfils with rigour and imagination.

If I were to nominate a movement in the cycle that weeps for us all it would be the opening Adagio of the Third Sonata, where sobbing repeated chords have us shaking our heads in wonderment at the music’s beauty, Ehnes shaping and shading them as if they are part of his very fibre. The fugue that grows out of the Adagio is defiant yet joyful and demands full-on concentration, which is what Ehnes grants it, most notably when Bach inverts his main theme roughly halfway through. The Largo expresses unruffled calm, especially as presented here with such simple eloquence, then a vigorous Allegro assai closes an excellent performance, which ushers in the familiar ‘echo’ Prelude to the Third Partita and a rhythmically pointed Loure. This, the shortest of the six works in the series, is more akin to the Cello Suites in spirit, and Ehnes makes hay with its myriad dance forms. It serves as proof that for this prodigiously gifted player the full expressive range of Bach’s solo violin opus is well within reach. Not uniquely so, perhaps (Linus Roth is also a contender – Evil Penguin, 5/22), but among digital modern-instrument rivals James Ehnes scores handsomely.

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