Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
April 8, 2018

A Limelight reviewer recently said Canadian violinist James Ehnes is ready to take his place in the pantheon of great virtuosos in the company of the likes of Grumiaux, Kogan and Oistrakh, while another critic said that his kind only comes along every hundred years.

This reviewer has been fortunate to hear Ehnes perform the Tchaikovsky and Beethoven concertos with Sydney Symphony Orchestra, both under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy, and his elegance, attention to detail and formidable musicality made a great impression. All the more reason to relish his appearance in the latest of the Utzon Series in an intimate and informal setting, performing two of Bach’s solo partitas and one of his sonatas.

Ehnes, looking boyish and wearing a dark grey suit, showed his relaxed side by asking his audience if they minded if he played with his back to them so he could admire the harbour view, before launching into the swaggering Preludio from the Partita No 3 in E minor with its almost boastful cross-bowing and loud-quiet echoing passages, all judged to perfection. Watching Ehnes, like all the great players, he makes it all seem so effortless, belying the hours of practice and years of study he has put in to get such a seamless technique firmly in place. Neither is he a demonstrative performer, his facial expressions and gestures are minimal as his eyes are firmly focused on his left hand while his deft bowing arms works its magic.

The tone from his 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius is smooth and full-throated, shown off to superb effect in the small room. After the lovely succession of dance tunes of the partita – surely Bach at his most captivating – Ehnes took a brief break to return for the more serious Sonata No 3 with its nobly ascending adagio opening, full of pulsing yearning. The feeling one gets here of Bach foreshadowing composers yet to be born is strengthened in the mighty fugue which follows, maybe because Beethoven was so fond of the form for his most weighty works.

But Ehnes was saving the mightiest for last with a wonderful reading of Partita No 2 in D minor, culminating in the showstopping, mammoth 64 variations of the Chaconne to cap the afternoon off. Coincidentally this reviewer had heard the same movement arranged and performed by Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital the previous night. That performance had made the audience’s collective jaw drop, and Ehnes’ magisterial interpretation put the seal on a magnificent afternoon of violin virtuosity.

It left one feeling amazed how one man, some pieces of wood, string and horsehair can summon up Bach’s glorious universe where melodies give way to implied harmony through broken chords, and where noble sentiments can evaporate into spirited dance tunes, all reaching out and touching the listener across the centuries.