Both are among the best Canadian artists currently before the public. As well, they share stylistic affinities: an unaffected, no-nonsense approach to interpretation that doesn’t shortchange depth, drama or virtuosity. Adding pianist Carolyn Maule (Braun’s wife) to this duo created a potent little chamber ensemble for a Thursday afternoon concert at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.
The program opened with two arias from Bach cantatas: “Herr, in meines Vaters Stätte” from Canata No. 32, and “Wenn Trost und Hülf ermangeln muss” from Cantata No. 117. (Purists might object to the use of a modern piano for this repertoire – but I’m glad to say I’m no purist.)
There was an unadorned clarity to these slices of Lutheran piety. Initially, Braun had a slight tremolo in his delivery – but he soon sorted it out, and when he did, his voice projected warmly. Ehnes and Maule provided a secure foundation that let this music speak for itself.
Ehnes returned to the stage alone for more Bach: the “Chaconne” from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor. This is when things started to get exciting.
From beginning to end, Ehnes’ tempos were rock-solid, his intonation was flawless and his technique was so masterful as to be simply not an issue. In his hands, every note was a perfectly shaped pearl. As well, he brought convincing ideas about the work’s structure to his performance – including some delicate pianissimo passages that, despite their minimal volume, shone with a luminous tone.
Next, it was Braun’s turn to do what he does best. He and Maule performed Beethoven’s song-cycle An Die ferne Geliebte – lavishing attention on every detail of the music and text. For Braun, a short song can contain many things, and he coloured his voice to negotiate subtle nuances in each line of text. For instance, “Leichte Segler in den Höhen” was alternately cheerful, dark and urgent.
Ehnes had the stage all to himself once again, this time for three Paganini Caprices: Nos. 9, 16 and 24. As with the Bach, Ehnes displayed jaw-dropping technical command. His spicccato was spot-on, his left-hand pizzicato was astonishing – and his double, triple and quadruple stops were all in a day’s work. Moreover, he made music of these flashy showpieces, and that isn’t easy.
A newly commissioned work for the program – John Estacio’s song-cycle Away and Awake in the Night, for violin, baritone and piano – received a premiere performance that probably couldn’t have been better.
Estacio is originally from the Toronto area, but has made his career in Alberta, where he is best known for his operas. He has a well-defined style – a kind of nostalgia-driven romanticism spiced up with piquant harmonies – and this cycle was in keeping with his musical values.
Braun’s part was idiomatically vocal, and gave him something to sink his teeth into. Similarly, the violin part was violin-esque, and the piano part was pianistic. However, Estacio’s decision to have the singer, violinist and pianist performing together most of the time made this music thick and unvaried in its textures.
More songs followed, by English and American composers. Three were for baritone and violin only: Vaughan Williams’ “We’ll to the Woods No More,” “The Half-Moon Westers Low” and “Fancy’s Knell” (all from his Along the Field cycle). Here, the problem was thinness of texture – but Ehnes and Braun made the most of their material.
A couple of songs from George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad – “When I Was One-and-Twenty” and “Look Not In My Eyes” – and also Samuel Barber’s “With Rue My Heart Is Laden” received charming performances by Braun and Maule.
Finally, all three musicians came together once again for Vaughan Williams’ “How Cold the Wind Doth Blow.” This Sussex folk-song is arranged so that the performers complement each other nicely – and Braun, Ehnes and Maule responded with a rich and satisfying performance.
© Colin Eatock 2013