Review – James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong play Bartók at the Wigmore Hall


Arcana begins its coverage of Béla Bartók (above) for 2016 with Richard Whitehouse reviewing a concert of the composer’s works for violin and piano, part of the Chamber Music series taking place at Wigmore Hall this year.

Wigmore Hall, Sunday 10 January 2016

Bartók: Rhapsody No.2 (1928); Solo Violin Sonata (1944), Sonatina (1925) (arr. Gertler); Violin Sonata No.1 (1921)

ehnes-armstrongJames Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong © BBC

Bartók’s chamber music with violin fits neatly into two recitals, James Ehnes returning to Wigmore Hall tonight for the second of these. He and pianist Andrew Armstrong began with the Second Rhapsody, in which they found persuasive accommodation between the music’s folk-derived essence; its combative alternation of mood and pacing, or its notably subtle thematic interplay: these aspects being governed by the player, Zoltán Székely, for which it was written and which here complemented each other perfectly in aim and intent.

While it has never been short of advocates since Yehudi Menuhin blazed a trail, the Sonata for Solo Violin is still undervalued in the context of Bartók’s later output. In part this is through its idiosyncratic handling of procedures deriving from the Baroque in general and Bach in particular. This can be observed in the first movement’s interweaving of chaconne and sonata elements, the second movement’s opening-out of its initial fugue to incorporate disparate processes, then the interplay of dynamism and reflection in the closing Presto. Such qualities were brought out in an interpretation audibly acknowledging this work as a harbinger of music to come, though the absence of quarter-tones in the finale underplayed the movement’s astringency.

The second half began with a transcription of the Sonatina by Endre Gertler, resulting in a brief yet perfectly poised piece whose three movements emerge with marginally greater presence than in the piano original, while not any the less characteristic of its composer.

The two violin sonatas (written for Jelly d’Arányi, though neither was in fact premiered by her) are significant in marking off decisive periods within their composer’s output. The First Sonata, its three movements cast on an imposing and even heroic scale, brings to a head those expressionist tendencies of the previous decade yet, for all its leanings towards atonality, is centred on chromatic and whole-tone harmonies. Ehnes had the measure of the fractured design of the opening Allegro appassionato, the stark thematic elements pulled apart rather than being brought together over its course, and found anxious introspection in the Adagio – not least the funereal overtones of its central section. The final Allegro tempered its headlong rush with lyrical asides, re-establishing a sense of tonal ‘destination’ prior to the brutally decisive coda. Armstrong tackled the cruelly exacting piano part with notable lack of inhibition and matched Ehnes’ headlong tempo for the finale through to those coruscating climactic bars.

A fine showing for a work which has only latterly come into its own in terms of performance. Ehnes and Armstrong returned for the Romanian Folk Dances (1926), Székely’s transcription of which stays relatively close to the piano original without sacrificing the slightest degree of virtuosity or panache. That would describe this evening overall, confirming Bartók as master of his craft and a reminder of his stature in the context of earlier twentieth century music: a stature that is happily being accorded its due at the Wigmore this season.

You can listen to the works in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, using versions by Yehudo Menuhin where possible:

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