Some few hundred metres – a stiff climb from the ferry terminal – above the lakeside town of Stresa, the Collegio Rosmini is perched on the side of the 1500m Mottarone. A theological college founded in the 19th century, the Collegio is now peopled with conference guests who drift through the ecclesiastical corridors and stop amid the sprawling gardens to take in the vista over Lago Maggiore, stretching in the mist up to Switzerland. Last night, however, the College Chapel played host to a Stresa Festival concert, in which James Ehnes played the complete solo Sonatas and Partitas of Bach. He gave performances full worthy of the setting: satisfying on every relevant level, whether technical, intellectual, expressive or spiritual.
The steady tactus adopted for the opening Adagio of the G minor Sonata set the pace of things to come. Here was not the Creation myth expounded to me recently by Kyung-Wha Chung, nor yet the confession of a troubled soul to be heard in many, more period-conscious accounts. He built to the movement’s climax as surely as if conducting a long Bruckner Adagio, and the fugue emerged naturally. He let the chapel acoustic take the strain, applying fairly consistent bow pressure without seeking melodramatic contrasts but gently inflecting the echo-voices which allow us to see through the solo line to the invisible counterpoint beneath.
Under Ehnes’ fingers, The B minor Partita was a masterpiece of multivalent eloquence. The opening Allemande had a prelude-like gravity as if a favoured courtier had stepped forward to announce the evening’s revels – or to bring a consistory to order. There followed an emollient Double, bowed and voiced as if with a diplomat’s tongue, a lightly tripping Courante, gentle and beguiling, rudely interrupted by the unstoppable, indecipherable rant of the second Double. The voice of calm authority intervened with the Sarabande, and the final three movements described something of a recessional. Here, as in the more famous E major Prelude, Ehnes gives weight to every point of the arpeggio, allows each note its speaking point – but he’s enough of a craftsman to recognise when, in the sonata finales, Bach throws caution to the wind and expects his violinist to do the same.
He brought a Romantic weight of expression to the Third Sonata, with phrase ends embraced and extended to match the scale of the endeavour, especially in the huge fugue. The inversion episode was announced with massive authority, and Ehnes set about its chromatic modulations as if with a stick through the scrub and brush behind us on the way to the summit of the Mottarone. There intervened an electrical light storm within the church, which sporadically bathed Ehnes in disco/episcopal purple, before it went on the blink altogether and left him, and us, in semi-darkness. He remained entirely unruffled; the audience, less so.
An hour later, the lights were fixed, and the gently rocking Andante of the A minor Sonata offered a superb example of Ehnes’ mastery of a personal, if unfashionable, vibrato in this music. On double- and even triple-stopped chords, the vibration is absolutely even, the tone firm. Trills and passing suspensions were discreetly touched in: this was neither machine-tooled nor fancy-free Bach, but the work of an assured orator, with a speaking line of sense always in mind and a destination in view. On another day, a sense of dialogue would have been welcome, but the intimacy of the occasion – 14 rows of pews, barely hundred in the audience – shone the light on Ehnes. He built the evening steadily towards the D minor Partita, and the Chaconne which had even the teenagers at the back putting their phones away. The unshowy confidence of the whole achievement felt, in fact, authentically Bachian, from what history allows us to glean about the personality of a proud and difficult man.