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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 32 in B flat major K454 [22:47]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, D574 [23:45]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in G major, Op. 78 [27:36]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) arr. Arthur Hartmann (1881-1956)
La fille aux cheveux de lin [3:25]
Sayaka Shoji (violin)
Menahem Pressler (piano)
rec. live, April 2014, Suntory Hall Tokyo; Kamakura Performing Arts Centre, Kamakura, Japan

For any duo to be successful, it seems to me that certain ingredients must be present. The artists must listen and be sympathetic to each other, be in tune with one another, have a sense of shared purpose and, most importantly, have a single vision of the music. If all these elements come together, there’s a winning chance. For me, these sonata performances, recorded live in Japan in April 2014, tick all the right boxes.

Sayaka Shoji is very astute in her choice of musical partners. A few months ago I reviewed her DG collaboration with the Italian pianist Gianluca Cascioli in the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas. She has also worked with the Israeli pianist Itamar Golan, again yielding fruitful results. For this latest release, she personally asked Menahem Pressler to perform with her, being drawn to his formidable artistry. So, in 2014, the pair embarked on a Japanese recital tour.

Pressler is now in his early nineties yet still maintains an active career as a soloist and chamber musician. His claim to fame was his founding of the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955. Sadly, they disbanded in 2008. Pressler had no intention of hanging up his spurs, even though he was then in his mid-eighties. He has continued to mentor young chamber musicians, passing on his vast knowledge and experience, whilst maintaining a solo career. I reviewed his Ninetieth Birthday Concert which he gave with the Quatuor Ebčne last year (Warner Erato 2564 625964) in which he took an active role.

K454 is perhaps Mozart’s best known and best loved violin sonata, where the composer gives more equality to the two instruments than in any of the other works in the genre. The work has a sunny disposition, and the duo here bring elegance, charm and refinement to the score. The slow movement is imbued with an intoxicating blend of eloquence and luminous warmth. Everything seems fresh and spontaneous, with the music seeming to be created on the wing. Especially striking is the expressive, rich, rounded singing tone that Pressler achieves. It has always been an outstanding feature of his playing.

I’m so pleased that the players chose Schubert’s more substantial Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, D. 574, where the keyboard is a more engaging partner, rather than one of the sonatinas. It’s a spacious, uplifting and life-enhancing reading, where the players bask in the composer’s melodic inventiveness. The Scherzo is built on light playful gestures, and the duo make the Andantino a lyrical dialogue. In the finale, Shoji’s crisply incisive articulation is a joy to hear. Both players truly bring Schubert’s music vividly to life.

As with the previous two sonatas, the Brahms is melodically generous. Shoji and Pressler take an expansive and romantic view, allowing the music to breathe. The opening movement has a pastoral flavour, reflecting nature in all its glory. I’m particularly drawn to the slow movement which is heartfelt and reflective, with an underlying dark and sombre feel. The passionate moments in the finale have a nobility of gesture. The Debussy encore ends the recital in a mood of meditative tranquillity, once again the duo working their magic.

The warm, spacious acoustics of both venues are similar and the sound picture is consistent throughout. Both instruments are equally balanced in the mix. Audience applause is retained. Booklet notes are in Japanese, with full English translation. Altogether, an engaging and convivial programme of deeply committed musicianship - a recital to savour.

Stephen Greenbank



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