Every time I attend a performance of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi I am more impressed by their sound. Lean, measured playing seems to acquire extra polish with every hearing. Such characteristic style brought tonight's programmatic chocolate box of Austro-Hungarian treats to life. A particularly youthful feel came courtesy of conductor-violinist duo Clemens Schuldt and Chloë Hanslip, who tuned into the house style in an evening of vital music making.

Chloe Hanslip © Benjamin Ealovega
Chloe Hanslip
© Benjamin Ealovega
Written in post-imperialist Hungary in 1951, Ligeti's Concert Românesc feels conspicuously traditional for its use of Romanian folk music, though the piece was judged to be non-conformist enough by the standards of Soviet Socialist Realism to have its official première postponed for two decades. Tightness and balance made for a characterful opening, from piquant string-wind blends in a sound reminiscent of Kodály to a kicking second movement dance underpinned by snapping snare and rude thrusts from brass. The work becomes progressively modernist in flavour, and by the time we reached the tumbling horn call and distant echo in the third movement the orchestra let itself go in exotic swathes that never tipped into saccharine. Swarming strings in the finale were vividly portrayed alongside winds chasing their tales. The violins' stomping folk dance bristled with rusticity. 

Entering the stage for Hungarian Karl Goldmark's rarely performed Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, Chloë Hanslip looked quintessentially English with roseate complexion contrasting strikingly against her dark dress and a swarthy backdrop of summer-bronzed musicians. There was also something curiously English in her ripe sound, lacking in grandiosity but invested with profound poignancy all the same. Hanslip coursed through the endless opening melody with joined-up eloquence, remoulding the sound in a magnification of the passage's markings from cantabile to espressivo to dolce. A highly communicative player, Hanslip swayed her body during orchestral interludes and glanced behind at players to coordinate entries. In full flow, she sang through the trills and leaping tritones with a boundless lyricism, mimicking an all-time tenor great with perfect breathe control.

Hanslip's rubato proved difficult to follow at times, and daring playing in madcap passages caused the tuning to skew. This did little to blemish a performance remarkable for the depth of character on show. Entitled "Air", the second movement opens like a chorale before broadening into the lightly embellished flow of a Bach cantata aria. Hanslip emerged from the calm and flowered into quaver melodies in circles of fifths, producing a sound that was at once endlessly searching and arresting for its simplicity. In sharp contrast, the final movement cadenza was marked by complete abandon. The violinist attacked her instrument with a guttural bottom register and whistling high notes in stratospheric leaps. She was required to pluck split hairs from her bow once the exhausting passage had reached its conclusion.

A momentary detour at the start of the second half provided a first look at Campogrande's Expo Variation: Saudi Arabia. The piece possesses similar qualities to other instalments in the 24-part commission: dynamic textures and spangling orchestration, dominated here by rising scales in horns and antiphonal interplay. The sound may be sugary, but below the glaze there is a wealth of sophisticated detail. These vignettes have been a delight on the ear.  

If the orchestra's playing was marked by poise and balance, so was the programme taken in its entirety. The buoyancy that had prevailed to now brought out the darker hues of Schubert's “Unfinished” Symphony deliciously. Nervous chattering in the rippling violin introduction had us teetering on the edge of a cliff with oboe and clarinet providing dangerous breezes in a sweeping melody. The scalding outbursts were electric, whilst their well-proportioned delivery allowed for magical segues into the lighter sections and back again to tense chatter, Schuldt eking out threatening bulges from pianissimo strings. At the work's première in 1865, Eduard Hanslick noted that the music is so crystal-clear that “you can see every pebble on the bottom”. A corresponding clarity to the playing showed this piece at its best tonight.

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