Review: James Ehnes ‘Violin Sonatas: Elgar/Debussy/Respighi’

By Cristina Schreil

Canadian violinist James Ehnes has once again assembled a pleasing collection of beautiful violin sonatas. Delivering sensitive performances with pianist Andrew Armstrong, Ehnes taps into the evocative emotional power of four works from the early 1900s—here, Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor, L. 140, Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 82, Respighi’s Violin Sonata in B minor, P. 110, and “Berceuse” from Sibelius’ 10 Pensées Lyriques, Op. 40. It’s a gorgeous listen.

In the Debussy’s first movement, Ehnes captures the soft, building-and-retreating passion that gives the opening movement such beauty. It’s gentle and nostalgic, rendered with firm articulation. Although the sonata doesn’t feel like it was wrought out of frustration, one might not help to think
of Debussy’s looming death and illness while he composed, namely at the end of the third movement.


Like Debussy, Elgar was in poor health while writing his Sonata in E minor. In its first movement, Ehnes creates a wonderful tone in the gripping beginning. It resembles a tempest of emotion wrought through the violin’s warm voice, a negotiation of turmoil and resignation. Both pianist and violinist maintain control over a steadily evolving outpouring of emotion.

In Respighi’s sonata, particularly thrilling is the Passacaglia—Allegro moderato ma energico, wherein Ehnes’ forward-driving playing is gripping and sonorous. The ending is big and full, with Ehnes’ violin sounding as goliath as the sounds coming from the pounded piano keys. The lullaby ending the album is a feather-light departure from the swirl of emotive power that built in the last three sonatas. The playing is indeed delicate, dreamlike, and, while quieter, enchanting.

James EhnesViolin Sonatas Elgar/Debussy/Respighi
James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano
(Onyx Classics)