Among the leading violinists performing today, James Ehnes seems to fly under the radar. Because of his recordings and past performances in the Washington area, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra, the Canadian violinist is one not to miss. Yet his accomplished recital Thursday night, at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland, did not fill the small Gildenhorn Recital Hall, an indication perhaps that Ehnes’s musicianship outstrips his attention-grabbing notoriety, entirely to his credit.
Aaron Copland’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano” was cool and airy, playing perhaps too much into the immaculate quality of tone Ehnes produced on his 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius. The piece is a little snoozy, and Ehnes gave it no sizzle. Grieg’s folksy second violin sonata (G major, op. 13) yielded more arresting results, seeming better to suit both Ehnes and his partner, pianist Orion Weiss, who was fluid and strong at the keyboard, taming the challenges easily in the dramatic third movement.
That same vital chemistry between the two musicians made Brahms’s compact and intense C-minor Scherzo a wild ride indeed, animated by Weiss’s rumbling left hand, which kept percolating even in the sweeter trio section. Schubert’s Fantasy in C, D. 934, needs a more mysterious hand at the keyboard, however, and Weiss tended to overpower Ehnes, especially in his opening tremolos. While Ehnes played extraordinary flautando notes, which just hung in the air at the end of the introduction, the lengthy variations of the slow movement, which need a big, fat legato, sounded a little prim in Ehnes’s hands. A lovely encore, Fritz Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois,” op. 2, provided a warm and soothing nightcap.
Downey is a freelance writer.