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Aspen Music Fest review: James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong deliver restorative Beethoven

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong performed from Seatlle on Sunday for the virtual Aspen Music Festival.
Courtesy phtoo

Violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong looked and sounded like they were truly enjoying themselves Sunday afternoon in the first Sunday concert of the Aspen Music Festival’s series of virtual performances. More to the point, anyone watching and listening likely bounced right along with them in two of Beethoven’s more uplifting sonatas for violin and piano.

Chalk up some of that to the sheer joy of making live music after a long drought as the pandemic limits most musicians to recording shoot-from-the-hip videos, streaming short pieces from their homes, or participating in celebratory events like the festival’s salute to music director Robert Spano the previous weekend.

Ehnes and Armstrong clearly know their way around these works. They recently completed a three-year compilation on three albums of all nine of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. Before the pandemic canceled the Aspen season they were scheduled to get into the full cycle this summer. If audiences can’t share Harris Hall with these performers, they at least got a performance made specially for Aspen, with excellent sound, fluid camera work, and musicians that did everything they could to connect with a remote audience they could not see from Seattle’s Center for Chamber Music.

A more frizzy-haired than normal Ehnes and a buttoned down Armstrong launched into the hour-long recital with a winning combination of vigor and deftness right from the first phrases of the Sonata No. 1 in D major. Melodic phrases and crunching chords struck just the right level of contrast, and recurring scale-like runs sparkled every time they came around. The pace never flagged, even in the sweet Andante at the center of the piece, and the Rondo Allegro topped things off with plenty of juicy moments.

Having played these sonatas together in recital for several years now, Ehnes and Armstrong were in sync on every phrase, breathing together on every phrase. The music flowed effortlessly, especially in the Adagio from Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major, which served as a sort of gentle intermezzo between the Sonata No. 1 and the Sonata No. 5 “Spring” that concluded the concert.

The lilt in the “Spring” opening Allegro felt entirely natural, and the development cast just enough of a shadow to make the return of the first themes feel fresh. The middle movements contrasted the lyrical weight of the Adagio with the zip of the Scherzo, setting up a good-natured romp through the Allegro non troppo finale.

Playing of this stature can assuage anxiety in a listener, just the ticket as we enter the second half of a year fraught with so much disquieting news. If you missed the Sunday broadcast, it’s repeated Tuesday at 7 p.m., accessed via the Aspen Music Festival website or Facebook page.

COMING THIS WEEK

Next Sunday afternoon’s concert finds pianist Daniil Trifonov delving into J.S. Bach’s “The Art of Fugue.” But first, a panel discussion involving seven women composers (an artifact of one theme of the canceled season) airs at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Julia Wolf, whose “Fire in My Mouth” got a much-lauded performance by the New York Philharmonic last year, leads a group that includes Missy Mazzoli, whose opera “Proving Up” got an Aspen performance last summer, and Tania León, a founder of Dance Theater of Harlem. Viewers can ask questions via the chat function. Later Wednesday, at 5 p.m., faculty violinist Robert Lipsett showcases five violin students and three cellists.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival since the early 1990s. His reviews appear Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.


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