Rare is the time when a live performance is note perfect and breathtakingly expressive at the same time, but such was the case when violinist James Ehnes and his jovial collaborator Andrew Armstrong delighted a rapt audience in the recital hall of the Lorenzo Piano Pavillion at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth this past Thursday evening. Having heard Mr. Ehnes play live five times now, and having reviewed many of his recordings, I am quite convinced that the boy could play Gregorian Chant in whole notes and it would still be a riveting musical experience. With technique so perfect that you don’t even notice it, he even compensated for a slightly out of tune string in Bach’s C Major solo sonata by adjusting on the fly and keeping the intonation perfect in the beastly virtuoso show piece.
The program opened with the Tartini cum Fritz Kreisler “devil’s trill” sonata, which is a double stop monster for the violin, but Kreisler’s attempt at continuo realization left little for Mr. Armstrong to do. Don’t worry, he got his turn in the second half. After intermission, we heard a delightful orphan, the Reverie et Caprice that Hector Berlioz rescued from the cutting room floor when editing down his unwieldy opera Benvenuto Cellini. It’s a lovely, tuneful little work that made for nice filler between the heavy hitting Bach and the sweeping Franck Sonata that rounded out the program. Mr. Armstrong proved himself to be fleet of finger and deeply expressive as he tossed off the fiendish piano part with a youthful glee.
Mr. Ehnes played this repertoire staple with a freshness that made the work seem brand new. Shifting from the wistful melancholy of the opening theme to the stormy turbulence of the development section, Ehnes and Armstrong let loose with some dazzling pyrotechnics while never losing emotional or technical control.
Mr. Ehnes’ boyish charm came to the fore in his winsome comments between pieces and the playful banter between him and Mr. Armstrong when it came time for the encore, a fetching little Hungarian Dance by Bela Bartok. Why people don’t turn out in droves for experiences like this recital is beyond me, but the hundred or so people that got to hear this performance can consider themselves a part of an elite society. It isn’t every day that one gets to partake of the divine, and on Thursday evening, we were treated to high mass.