On Monday lunchtime, the rising Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang and the Tashkent-born pianist Michail Lifits launched this year’s Proms Chamber Music series in the relatively intimate space of Cadogan Hall. This season, the BBC will be filming all of these chamber music concerts (in addition to the usual live radio broadcasts) and will put them up on the Proms website shortly after the concert, making it available to a wider audience.

Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve

In a duo recital, it is always interesting to observe the dynamic between the two players, both physical and musical. It was the first time for me to hear both players live, but it was obvious that this youthful duo has been playing together for some time and they really trust each other, listening and reacting to each other’s playing flexibly.

They opened the recital with Ravel’s jazz-influenced sonata. I found this an interesting choice as an opener, as the work is a very atmospheric piece, and they have to immediately capture the mood of a sultry Parisian evening. Perhaps because of the bright sunshine coming through the windows, the first movement began in a rather relaxed and low-key manner. One hoped for a little more urgency in the first movement, even though large sections of the music are soft. It was well into the blues-influenced second movement that things began to heat up and the intensity level rose. The third movement was brilliantly executed by both players, although here too, their playing seemed almost too beautiful, if one is allowed to say such a thing. Sometimes I wished for shaper articulation in Frang’s playing. She is obviously a highly talented musician and her strength lies in her meticulously controlled bowing and delicate and transparent tone, often playing with light bow pressure. In particular, the final rising arpeggio and long-held pianissimo note of the first movement were breathtakingly beautiful. In a way, her understated virtuosity is refreshing in a young violinist.

In Mozart’s Sonata in G major, K379, Frang seemed happy to let Lifits take the lead (as she had been, to a certain extent, in the Ravel as well). This is understandable because Mozart wrote the work in the 18th-century style of a “piano sonata with violin accompaniment”, and the piano has the more soloistic part. Their interpretation of the Mozart showed a Romantic-style approach (especially Lifits’ playing) rather than a Classical period-style approach, but it was again very beautifully and stylishly performed. In particular, they brought out the contrasts of light and shade in Mozart’s music, for instance at the dark opening of the Allegro movement. In the final variations movement, Lifits displayed nimble fingerwork and a wide range of tonal colour.

Frang and Lifits concluded their official programme with Lutosławski’s Partita (1984), in a nod to the composer’s centenary, which is being celebrated throughout this year’s Proms. The work has been championed by the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who has been an influential mentor to Frang, and it was Mutter who encouraged her to tackle this piece.

The work is made up of three main sections linked by two semi-improvisatory sections which are written without barlines so both the violinist and the pianist have to decide (independently of each other) how to phrase the notes. In this work, I felt that the two musicians really rose to the occasion (Frang in particular was more assertive here, without losing any of her tonal beauty) and together achieved the drama and the intensity of the work. There is a lot of emotional contrast within the movements, which they expressed with conviction. I was especially drawn in by the middle section, Largo, which seemed to be the emotional core of the piece. The haunting and pounding chordal writing for piano runs through the movement, contrasted with more virtuosic violin writing. Following the second improvisatory section, the finale is a jaggedly rhythmic and lively movement, which was performed with great energy.

After the intensity of the Lutosławski, the breezy encore of Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of Estrellita (by Ponce) brought us back to the bright and sunny summer’s day.