Monday, February 12, 2018

CMSF Opens Delightfully with James Ehnes

Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF) launched its 2018 season in San Francisco with a recital by Canadian violinist (now living in Florida) James Ehnes. Pianist Orion Weiss served as his accompanist for a program of three sonatas composed by (in order of performance) Ludwig van Beethoven, Francis Poulenc, and Richard Strauss. Regular readers of this site probably know by now that, when Beethoven had his violin sonatas published, he had the title page describe them as sonatas for pianoforte and violin, a priority that probably reflected his having been the pianist when these pieces were first performed. However, it was clear from yesterday afternoon’s performances that the piano played just as significant a role in the Poulenc and Strauss selections, making the whole affair one in which Ehnes and Weiss could be described as equal partners.

Ehnes begin his program with the first of the three sonatas Beethoven had published as his Opus 12. The sonata was written in 1798 and dedicated to Antonio Salieri, whose relationship with Beethoven seems to have been warmer than that of Joseph Haydn. Nevertheless, as with other early works, there is abundant evidence of Beethoven flexing his capacity for wit, fully aware of what Haydn could do and determined to show that he could do better. This is particularly evident in the interplay of the two instruments, making it clear that the piano part was no mere accompaniment. The chemistry between Ehnes and Weiss assured the listener that they were delighted with the give-and-take opportunities afforded by the score; and, if Beethoven limited his flat-out belly laughs to only a few instances, yesterday’s reading of the score maintained a consistently engaging level of high spirits.

Poulenc was also a composer known for his high spirits, but his violin sonata marked a significant rhetorical shift. The piece was composed between 1942 and 1943, placing it after the invasion of Paris by Adolf Hitler’s German army. It was written in memory of Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet dedicated to serving the Second Spanish Republic and subsequently executed by Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s forces received support from both Hitler and Benito Mussolini; so Poulenc’s dedication was very much a present-day reflection on a past tragedy. He even gave the final movement the tempo marking of Presto tragico.

Taken as a whole, the sonata score presents Poulenc at his most intense. The tempo of the opening movement is Allegro con fuoco, and the fire is definitely a wild one. Since Poulenc was, like Beethoven, a pianist, it was easy to appreciate the collaborative technique through which the intense expressiveness of the music derived from both players. While sitting in Herbst, I realized that, while I knew this sonata from several different recordings, yesterday was a “first contact” experience with an actual performance. That realization quickly turned to a reflection that this piece definitely deserves more attention than it is currently getting, and both Ehnes and Weiss together could not have been better advocates for the music’s virtues.

The intermission was followed by Richard Strauss’ Opus 18 sonata in E-flat major. Ehnes observed that this was the composer’s last major effort before turning from chamber music to orchestral writing and his interest in extended tone poems. That transition may have already been on his mind, since much of the piano part involves full-handed writing suggesting that Strauss may have really wanted to write a concerto, rather than a sonata. Nevertheless, the violin is far from neglected. (Think of all the violin solo work that Strauss wrote after he shifted his attention to those tone poems.) If the rhetorical delivery came off as more than a little rumbling, particularly when compared with both Beethoven and Poulenc, Ehnes knew how to make every passage he delivered thoroughly palatable; and he and Weiss were once again able to find just the right chemistry to guide the attentive listener down Strauss’ paths, even when the gestures of ornamentation tended to go over the top.

Having turned the afternoon into a highly satisfying meal of meat and potatoes, Ehnes served up a dessert course of three encores. He seized audience attention by launching into “Flight of the Bumblebee,” which Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov originally wrote as an orchestral interlude for his opera The Tale of Tsar Sultan. Its popularly led to adaptation through more arrangements than can be enumerated, and Ehnes played the duo for violin and piano prepared by Jascha Heifetz. He then turned from the most popular of warhorses to a virtually known gem, a “Berceuse” for violin and piano by Jean Sibelius. Sibelius himself was a virtuoso violinist; but, aside from his violin concerto, most of what he wrote for violin remains unknown. Ehnes himself expressed regret that it took him so long before encountering this music, and his delivery of the score amounted to an affectionate apologia. He then turned back to the fireworks with a performance of Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zapateado” (Opus 23, Number 2), the sixth of a set of eight transcriptions of Spanish dances published two at a time in four books (Opera 21, 22, 23, and 26). This was another popular Heifetz encore; but this time he did not have to do any arranging, since Sarasate scored the music for violin and piano.

I found it interesting to observe that Ehnes came to his more familiar encore preferences through listening to a recording of Itzhak Perlman. My generation was influenced by a “battle of the record labels” with Heifetz on RCA and Isaac Stern on Columbia. However, the RCA catalog reaches further back in history; and I continue to find the CD transfers of all of that archival material to be a major asset in my collection. (It is also worth noting that Yehudi Menuhin acknowledge the influence of his own collection of Heifetz 78s.) What will be the inspiring listening matter for the next generation of violinists?

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