The Canadian violinist reveals the importance of Elgar in his life and why Respighi isn’t for the living room.
Congratulations on a fascinating recording of unusual material. How did the programme for the CD come together?
It was actually the programme for a recital idea that I had. I was fascinated by music written towards the end of the First World War. These really wonderful and iconic pieces for violin and piano are so very, very different. I was wondering how much of that was attributable to people being isolated for maybe the last time in history. If you look at the pieces on this programme, you have Sibelius, who was completely isolated up in Finland, cut off from Europe. There was the First World War and the impending Russian Revolution and the Finnish civil war – all sorts of chaos. Elgar was so dismayed by all this that he withdrew to the country and had this wonderfully fertile creative period. Debussy became incredibly patriotic and was signing things as “un musicien français”. And then you had Respighi, down in Italy doing his own thing, and unlike the others, really coming into his own as a superstar composer at the height of his powers. I just found it fascinating how different the music was.
In terms of the programme on the actual disc, is there meant to be a through line?
It’s an interesting thing with CDs now. You really want to put some thought into the people who are going to listen to it and what might be the best piece to start with or what might be the piece that you can’t put anything else after. But I think you can overthink it, because more and more people listen to music on a piece by piece basis. They’ll even buy it that way. They’ll say, “I just want to hear the Elgar Sonata,” so they’ll buy those tracks off Amazon or whatever. But the way we arranged it is the way I would play it in concert. There’s not much you want to hear after the Elgar, but there’s not really much you want to hear after the Respighi. So I guess if it were myself listening to the disc straight through, I would probably give myself a little intermission between the Elgar and the Respighi. And then think of the Sibelius as a little postlude.
The Elgar is still not heard that much in recital. How did you get to know it?
I do quite a bit of playing in the UK and I played the Elgar Violin Concerto for the first time maybe 12 or 13 years ago. I started playing it a lot. I didn’t know the sonata until I received a specific request from a presenter in England. I learned it, and it really enchanted me. It’s a piece that I feel very strongly about now. I think it’s an unusual, magical piece. There’s not really anything that fills that same sort of emotional space for me. Elgar in general is like that. He’s a composer I came to reasonably late, but who has become one of the important parts of my life. Growing up in Canada, basically the only pieces of Elgar you would ever hear were Pomp and Circumstance, and once in a while the Cello Concerto. Learning all of this other amazing Elgar music was one of the great joys of my 20s.
The Respighi is even rarer still. It also seems in some ways the most passionate work here. What was he trying to say with the piece?
Of the main three pieces on the CD it’s the piece I knew first. I had a tape of it that my grandma gave me when I was a little boy and I totally fell in love with it. I just think it’s magnificent. I think Respighi was at the height of his powers and was very interested in exploring colour and range of emotion – it was written just after The Fountains of Rome. And it’s about as ambitious a violin sonata as there is. There’s such a lot of notes in it! Everything about it seems like someone who is trying to push the boundaries. This is not chamber music that you would particularly want to hear in your living room – it’d probably blow your windows out! It’s almost like a work for full orchestra that happens to be for just the two instruments. Even at its most intimate, it’s often very lush. I think it’s just amazing.
You’ve recorded with Andrew Armstrong on a number of occasions. What’s the essence of your partnership?
We’ve been friends for a long time and worked together quite a bit, for about a decade now. It’s really a joy to play with him. He’s the type of person that is always looking for a way to be more expressive, more communicative. He never rests with what he thinks might be good enough. He’s always questioning his own playing. He’s very funny to record with as well because he has boundless energy and is the type of person that can play a movement five or six times in a row and Andy’s always like, “Oh, let’s do it one more time, I think I can play this part a little more beautifully”, or “What if we were to do this?” I tend to be that way as well, so it’s a good match. He’s one of my best friends and someone that I really like and admire. We have similar tastes in music so our instincts tend to go in the same direction. But we have strong enough individual personalities that hopefully the totality is more than the sum of its parts.
James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong in Banff
You’ve got a very eclectic discography. Are you an inveterate explorer of new works? And how do you find what comes next?
As far as what I’ve recorded, I’ve just been really lucky to have a lot of interesting chances. When an opportunity comes my way, I really go for it. I think a lot of people think very strategically about their recording careers: “Oh, we want to make sure that this CD is recorded at the right time, so it can be released at the right time, and not too soon after my last release, and not too far before my next one” – those types of thoughts. Andy and I were playing these pieces as a recital and we had a few free days at the end, so we thought, “Well, we’re never going to know these pieces better than on these particular days.”
As for what comes next, there’s just a lot of great music out there. So am I looking for new music? I guess so. I’m always keeping my ears open and always hearing either pieces that are new to me or even pieces that are new to everybody – I do have an appetite for that sort of thing. And playing a range of pieces of different styles with different challenges makes me a better and more well-rounded player in general.
You’ve been a regular visitor here in Australia. Do you have plans to return?
I don’t know if I’m coming in 2017, but I’m back in 2018, for sure. I could very happily move to Australia. I think it’s a wonderful country. It feels very much like home.