Johanna Messner ('cello) and the Hohenloher Quartet with Anna Niehaves (viola).

St Mary’s Church Iffley, June 16th 2017.


Wolfgang Hermann-Kautter (viola), Johanna Messner ('cello), Magdalene Kautter (violin), Anna Niehaves (viola), Dietrich Schüz (violin), Jörg Baier ('cello)

In the warm and generous acoustics of St Mary’s Church the final concert of this Iffley Music Society season was a programme of music for strings, opening with Bach’s third solo ‘cello suite. Johanna Messner’s playing was dignified, rhetorical, carefully measured in every movement, concentrating on the meaning of each phrase and linking passage to passage in an always persuasive musical argument. Her tempi were generally cautious, well suited to the resonance of the building, with nicely judged alternations of staccato and legato especially in the second movement Allemande, the Bourrées and the closing Gigue. The intonation was precise - and needed to be, since vibrato was kept to a satisfying and stylish minimum, each note speaking clearly for itself and its context. If I could pick out a movement for particular praise it would be the pair of Bourrées, in which Messner achieved a delightful balance of poise and playfulness, melody and embellishments speaking with special clarity and conviction.

The Bach was followed by the incomparable K516 G minor quintet of Mozart, in which for the second viola part the Hohenloher Quartet were joined by Anna Niehaves. The church acoustics proved initially a little more difficult here for the urgent pace set in the opening Allegro and also the start of the second movement Minuet, but in each of these the group soon settled well into its collaborative intonation, and there were many highly effective moments of genuine dramatic pathos. Here too, as in the Bach and later in the Brahms, vibrato was used very sparingly, enabling a purity of chordal tuning particularly striking in the choir-like harmonies of the third movement Adagio. It was in the final Allegro that the ensemble seemed to come most eloquently and confidently together, with some well conceived and beautifully executed dynamic contrasts and semiquaver runs of sparkling life and clarity.

After the interval Johanna Messner joined the other players for the G major Brahms Sextet Op. 36, a work of great complexity, massive structure and towering rhetorical brilliance. A great deal of collective thought had clearly fed into this performance, the mood ranging, always coherently, from moments of wafting airiness to assertive outbursts, musical sentences combining to make meaningful and powerful paragraphs, and the whole piece forming a truly convincing and logical story. There were some particularly beautiful moments in which inner voices spoke through the collective ensemble, balance very well judged, perhaps at its very best here in the whole concert. In the bitter-sweet atmosphere of the second movement Scherzo-Allegro-Presto sequence there were eloquent contrasts of tempo, and of musical language especially as the writing moves in and out of ‘Hungarian’ mode, as it does also in the final ‘Poco Allegro’. This was a fine performance of a demanding work, and an assured finale to the evening.

Jonathan Katz