Even on the dankest of winter evenings, lullabies of sorrow may seem a pessimistic choice for a New Year concert. But Brahms’s three Intermezzi, Op117, proved a fitting vehicle for Maria João Pires’s softly spoken pianism. In these ostensibly naive pieces, Pires accessed despair, turbulence and torrid passion with the lightest of touches. Even as she eked out the sense of anguish, she evoked the gentle breathing pattern of sleep.
Indeed, to the Portuguese pianist, who has been playing concertos since she was five, performing appears to come as naturally as breathing. She seemed less comfortable, however, when partnered with the Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses in Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, D821 – the first of the evening’s three works for piano and cello. In this tightly bound piece, artistic temperaments collided.
As the more extrovert performer of the two, Pires dared to flirt with our expectations and push the boundaries, while Meneses was more introspective, measured, cautious. A little too cautious. Instead of embracing the work’s multiple characteristics, he steered between them. As a result, the playful refrain of the first movement dragged its feet. The whispered yearning lacked atmosphere. And the start of the third movement was not the blast of fresh air that it could have been.
The interval acted as a tonic. The two performers dialogued seamlessly in Mendelssohn’s Song without Words, Op109, Meneses regaining the poetical flow that had been missing in the Schubert, Pires making easy work of the lilting harmonies. And by the time they reached Brahms’s Cello Sonata No 1 in E minor, Op 38, they were well into their stride. It was just as well: inhibition has no place in this brooding work. But rather than drenching it in sweat – a dangerous temptation with this piece – Meneses’s natural poise, coupled with Pires’s sensitive accompaniment, lent it an elegant sheen. This would have been a good way to sign off, had not the encore – JS Bach’s organ Pastorale arranged for cello and piano – provided such a delicate, memorable close.