Ehnes Plays Beautiful Bach

Ehnes Bach

BACH: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006 / James Ehnes, violinist / Analekta AN28772-3

Recently, I previewed a new recording of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas by a different violinist on another label. The performances were heartfelt and interesting, but the violinist in question insisted on using the historically unproved “straight tone” that is the new religion of musical academia, and thus the performances didn’t move me. I told the person who offered me the recording that although I would give this recording a good review, I would constantly be comparing him unfavorably to Mark Kaplan in his magnificent recording last year on Bridge.

Listening to the opening “Adagio” of the first sonata on this recording, I almost had the same reaction. It wasn’t that Ehnes’ playing wasn’t good—it most certainly was—but it didn’t strike me as exceptional. But as soon as he started in on the succeeding “Fugue: Allegro,” the emotional impact of the performance picked up several notches and I was hooked. I just had to hear what he did with the rest of the series.

By and large, I would say that Ehnes’ performances here are just as intense as those of Kaplan and the great Amandine Beyer (on Zig Zag Territoires), the only straight-tone violinist whose work I put on the same high level. That is a considerable achievement in a field where even so fine a player as Rachel Barton Pine falls short of that exalted level. If I still prefer Kaplan and Beyer, it is because their work is simply more imaginative and their tempos more flexible and buoyant. Ehnes maintains a steady tempo throughout each movement of each sonata and partita, only showing the very slightest use of rubato here and there by placing a slight bit of stress and a slightly elongated note within his phrases, but this in itself places him above the straight-toned violinist I chose not to review. Like Kaplan and Beyer, Ehnes sounds as if every note of every phrase means something to him. He achieves a direct emotional connection with the music that is refreshing and valuable in a crowded field of recordings going all the way back to Nathan Milstein.

Listen, for instance, to the slightly more pronounced rubato in the final phrase of the first partita’s “Allemande.” It’s almost as if Ehnes can’t bear to let the music go; he wants so badly to let it linger in the mind as he closes the movement out. Little touches like this are common in his readings, and they are what separates him from the violinist whose work I passed for review.

It’s a matter, I would say, of sincerity over mere intention. Perhaps some of my readers are old enough to remember It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! and Linus’ deeply-held belief that only a pumpkin patch that is the most sincere will be graced by a visit from the Great Pumpkin. Sincerity is one of those intangibles in every performance, and it goes beyond mere energy and pep. It is the reason I love the playing of super-virtuosos György Cziffra and Sviatoslav Richter but dislike, for the most part, the playing of Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich. Of course, millions of people can’t hear the difference, otherwise no one would buy Horowitz or Argerich recordings, and I can’t put it exactly into words for you. You just have to believe me when I say I hear the difference.

So does this Ehnes recording supplant the Kaplan or Beyer versions? Certainly not. They are unique in a different way. But it is equally interesting because he so obviously loves this music. Like most violinists who approach these monumental works, he has given them a great deal of thought, but unlike a great many of his peers he is able to deliver his own personal vision of that music.

Indeed, for those who may dislike the extra detail that Kaplan and Beyer put into their recordings, Ehnes represents a fine middle ground. He is the one you can turn to for a fine reading that is not too highly individual, just as one can turn to Zuill Bailey’s recording of the Bach Cello Suites if one is dissatisfied with Yehuda Hanani. I personally like the extra detailing of Kaplan and Beyer, but I could live with Ehnes if their recordings did not exist.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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