Hampstead Arts Festival hosted the long-overdue debut recital of Paris-based Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji, who has already appeared in London as soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra amongst others, and is also a committed chamber musician. She was partnered by Israeli pianist and composer Matan Porat on a Fazioli. Apparently, this was the first time they played together, but they seemed naturally to share a sense of musicality, and together they explored three masterpieces of the violin sonata repertoire with intelligence and depth.

Sayaka Shoji © Kishin Shinoyama
Sayaka Shoji
© Kishin Shinoyama
They opened the recital with Schumann’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in A minor, a fairly late work composed in 1851. I felt this work suited Shoji’s serious temperament best in this programme. In the first movement, she certainly played with passionate intensity (indicated mit leidenschaftlichen Ausdruck), but at the same time, she wouldn’t let the passion take over completely, and balanced it with an analytical approach, bringing out the formal structure with clarity. The middle movement was performed with simplicity and the lyrical second theme sounded like lieder. The finale was lively in tempo, but here I felt it lacked a little in the liveliness of spirit. It just felt a little too precise and controlled at times.

In Ravel’s Violin Sonata too, Shoji sometimes sounded a little too controlled. Although she wears her virtuosity lightly, she has a brilliant technique (after all she was the youngest winner of the Paganini Competition in 1999), and also has a wonderful range of tonal colour. There was an ethereal and shimmering quality to her sound in the first movement, which was elegantly played. The Blues second movement was where one wanted a little more sensuousness and even languor, and to allure us into the jazzy music. The Perpetuum mobile finale was brilliant and crisp, but here too, she seem to favour the precision of the continuous semiquavers rather than to run away with it with momentum.

The second half of the recital was dedicated to the ever-popular Franck A major Sonata. Both musicians seemed at ease in this work, particularly Shoji, who must have played this work so many times, and throughout they struck a fine balance between the shaping of the phrases and a larger sense of structure. This was most evident in the third movement (titled Recitative-Fantasia), where both Shoji and Porat created a meditative and dreamy atmosphere, at the same time exploring of the motivic aspect of the movement, which I had not heard highlighted in any other performance. In the first two movements too, there was similar attention to phrasing; Shoji played with a soaring, sweet tone, and Porat supported the violin with great understanding of harmony and style. In the opening melody of the finale, there could have been a touch more joyousness – she is very impressive in the intense and introspective moments of the work, but when the music requires a more outgoing expression, I wished she could loosen up a little. Still, she is a highly serious and thoughtful musician and probably this is part of her personality. As an encore, they played an arrangement of Bartok’s Six Romanian Folk Dances with suitably folksy articulation and expression.