Iffley Music Festival 2017

Maki Sekiya (piano) and Johanna Messner ('cello)

Iffley Church Hall, Sunday March 12th, 2017

Maki Sekiya

A weekend of first-rate chamber music was brought to a triumphant conclusion in an afternoon recital by Johanna Messner ('cello) and Maki Sekiya (piano). The full house – no room for a number of disappointed latecomers without tickets – was treated to a nicely balanced programme of Debussy, Ravel and Janáček leading to a crowning finale in Brahms's E minor sonata Op. 38. This last was, especially in the expansive opening movement, majestic, thought-provoking Brahms, themes and harmonic progressions being allowed the time to speak and to build a persuasive whole; there was much eloquent beauty of tone from the 'cello, a subtly graded range of different intensities in the vibrato, smooth and seamless bowing when needed, and powerful, dramatic accents in the more affirmative moments, matched by piano playing of complete technical security and firm conviction in the melodic shaping.

Johanna Messner

Such performances often make us hear works as if afresh, and here it was above all in the unusual pacing of the second and third movements that we were made to reconsider what Brahms has to tell us. The 'Allegretto quasi Menuetto' had a probing, testing quality to it, more fluid, more measured than it is commonly felt to be, discreetly hinting at new depths and teasing our understanding of what that 'quasi' might have meant to the composer himself. Again, in the closing Allegro, the fugato theme was launched at a more circumspect, even tentative, tempo than we normally hear, resulting in a progression of considerable power and gravity over the course of the whole movement – a revelatory account of this well-known masterpiece.

The recital began with Debussy's 'cello sonata, a performance of charming piquancy, fully exploring wide ranges of moods and rapid changes of tone and register, from the declamatory opening statement, through lingering elegiac thoughts, and into passages of fierce nervous energy in the finale. The middle movement's 'Sérénade' showed the two players very much at one with each other, piano staccato finely complementing the 'cello pizzicato and introducing a true 'dialogue' of thoughts, questions and tentative answers.

Maki Sekiya's playing of Ravel's six-movement 'Tombeau de Couperin' was an excellent choice for her solo item, displaying both exhilarating virtuosity (not least in her masterly and subtle pedaling) and moments of genuine lyrical beauty, above all depicting a richly varied set of character portraits of these friends of the composer.

Before the closing Brahms we heard Janáček's duo 'Pohádka', three musical poems on scenes from Russian heroic tales. Here was a quite different lyricism, in this composer's utterly individual and instantly recognisable mode. For me the two players' beautiful performance was a first hearing, redolent of some of the finest and even the most heartbreaking moments to be found in any of Janáček's string chamber music or the descriptive piano pieces, and it sent me, after the concert, in urgent search of the score and other available performances.

This was a memorable concert, professional playing of a very high order, an inspiration to the audience, enhanced by acoustics to be proudly cherished in Iffley's delightful church hall.

Jonathan Katz