What a democratic programme Marc-André Hamelin curated for us at Wigmore Hall, even if he was, in fact, the dictating force behind each performance, with Anthony Marwood on violin and Martin Fröst on clarinet. Each half contained a pair of duo compositions, before all three combined for Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat before the interval and Bartók's Contrasts to send us home with a smile. For a group of musicians new to performing with each other, their cohesiveness was impressive indeed.

Martin Fröst © Mats Bäcker
Martin Fröst
© Mats Bäcker

Marwood and Hamelin kicked off with one of Schubert’s strangest pieces, his Rondo in B minor D895, a late work with a manic energy which, in this performance, seemed much more unsettling than joyful. Marwood’s thoughtful approach played down the histrionics of the opening passage and but then moved towards a feverish outpouring of good humour by the final più mosso. Hamelin was attentive and assertive in the faster passages, but not particularly melting in the few moments of repose.

He was much more at home in the Première Rhapsodie by Debussy that followed. Here we were introduced to the flamboyant clarinettist Martin Fröst, who wowed us with his dynamic range and extraordinary palette of colour. However, Fröst was slightly distracting in his snake-like movements and ultimately left one rather over-stimulated by his virtuosity, which seemed to get in the way of the beauty in the music. Hamelin was also rather too muted here, maybe to compensate for Fröst's antics, and this proved to be the least impressive performance on the concert.

Things really heated up with the suite from Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, a more exhilarating performance of which it would be hard to imagine. All three musicians seemed to be fired by this remarkable score, pulling together their considerable collective virtuosity splendidly. Every movement fizzed, but the longest and most complex Tango-Valse-Rag was a coruscating feast of rhythmic variety and sharp coloration.

After the interval, we were treated to an outstanding performance of the moving Clarinet Sonata by Poulenc, written in memory of Arthur Honegger. It is a melancholy work, despite all the composer's efforts in the last movement to cheer himself (and us) up. Fröst again seemed to over-egg the pudding, but as the performance went on, particularly in the heartbreaking Romanza, one couldn’t help being won over by his theatrical approach. This is a small-scale work with a huge heart and Fröst showed us this in every phrase. Hamelin was particularly sensitive and clear headed here, producing ravishing moments that eluded him in the Schubert.

The Debussy Violin Sonata followed, with Marwood and Hamelin going for an understated and delicate approach to this fabulously elusive work. I always prefer a bit more fire in the belly in this piece, but their approach was valid and bore fruit in the beauty of tone and a nobility in the last movement that is rarely revealed. This was Debussy’s last completed work and, although it is again small in scale, it has a formal and harmonic ease that has rarely been matched, certainly in the violin sonata repertoire. 

The evening concluded with a colourful rendition of Bartók’s Contrasts. Commissioned by celebrity Jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman, there are only nods to his jazz roots in the final movement; otherwise, the piece is as mysteriously Hungarian as much of Bartók's output, utilizing the local folk songs and dance rhythms that dominate his musical style. The first movement's cheeky main theme was beautifully characterized by Fröst, with Marwood finding the right balance of not quite being an equal partner in the mix. The spooky slow movement was again superbly characterized, with Hamelin finding a delicate touch with his gamelan-like interjections. Everyone let their hair down in the finale, with the closing flourish deftly brought off. The redoubtable Wigmore audience was sent home with a skip in their step after a thoroughly invigorating display of first-rate musicianship.