Another lazy Sunday morning means another quality chamber concert for the Wigmore Hall cognoscenti. This week, their complimentary sherry was served with a cocktail of violin and piano duets, mixing the contrasting flavours of Pärt, Schubert and Richard Strauss, courtesy of child-prodigy-turned-twentysomething virtuoso Chloë Hanslip and established pianist Charles Owen.

Chloë Hanslip © Ben Ealovega
Chloë Hanslip
© Ben Ealovega

I’m afraid my restaurant metaphor breaks down here. Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, though it was presented as an hors-d’oeuvre, could only be a sorbet, ice cold and crystal clear as it is. Despite the momentum created by continuous spread-chord style of the solo violin opening, this is a music of stasis: Pärt’s piano, upon its entrance, extracts the listener from time and space, and the violin becomes weightless as it extemporises over the simple chords and pedals of its partner. Hanslip’s introduction was tentative and she often missed the top notes of her spread chords, but with an increased musical intensity she gained an evenness of tone vital for such motionless music, and when the opening section returned accompanied by heavy piano chords, she proved she could hit those notes no problem. Her real violin mastery was witnessed in her spotless harmonics melody, and equally in a passionately played stratospheric double-stopping section over a double pedal in the piano, as Pärt exploits extremes of register to create his vast and enveloping sonic vacuum. Charles Owen at the piano played a supporting role, but a vital one all the same, as it is from the piano’s chorale-like chords that the violin finds all its inspiration. Fratres, although short and relatively simple, is an intense listening experience, and as detoxicating and palate-cleansing as any watermelon sorbet I’ve ever tasted.

The warm tremolo piano chords with which Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in C began melted the atmosphere somewhat, but in spite of this change in technique and temperature, the music maintained a consistency of exquisite weightlessness. This was as much to do with Owen’s lightness of touch as Hanslip’s sweetly vulnerable, vibrato-less opening passage; for Schubert favours the piano far more than Pärt does, and this is much more of a violin and piano work than a violin with piano.

Indeed, as the violin’s cadenza-like flourish led into the Allegretto, the two instruments played thematic ping-pong, rebounding the spritely first subject between them, showing good communication in their insistent echoing. The third section (the Fantasy isn’t really divisible into movements) was a Theme and Variations, for which the little early-Romantic theme par excellence – full, as it is, of yearning and desire only half fulfilled – saw the violin shine in a triplet variation, in which Hanslip’s note weighting was excellent, and then submit to a subservient pizzicato role, playing second fiddle to the piano’s own whirring triplets. Another variation, slower and full of trills and spread chords, once again revealed the violinist to be a little uncertain on the E-string, before a recapitulation of the work’s opening led into a joyous, simple dance-like tune. The pair seemed to be enjoying Schubert’s writing, and they worked together reassuringly well for the most part, although their ending was hardly convincing, as they failed to navigate a tricky cross-rhythmic passage entirely seamlessly. All the same, it was a lovely performance of a lovely little piece; not Schubert at his tragic, serious best, but perfect for a Sunday morning.

Richard Strauss wrote his Violin Sonata in E flat when he was my age as I write this, which, moreover, was Miss Hanslip’s age last year. We can’t all be geniuses, I console myself saying. But if this is hardly Strauss at his most groundbreaking, its rich late-Romanticism certainly inspired the violinist to be at her best. The almost Sturm und Drang-style opening featured some particularly naufragous pianism from Owen, with Hanslip tending to calm his ruffled feathers. She was in total control, and had a much more commanding presence than previously.

She also proved at her most impassioned, and rightly so: Strauss’ more meaty music requires some good tucking into, and what’s more, it was by now past noon, and so morally acceptable. The second movement was as tender as butter, the duo finding the perfect balance as they flittered between anxious piano tremolos and the furry warmth of the muted violin, and ending on a truly serene note. However, the hints of darkness resurged in the piano’s introduction to the final movement, before the deep minor was ousted by an assertive major. The violin does little but provide a deliciously showy garnish to the Kiev-esque (Gates of, not chicken) crashing chords in the piano, but the performers came together to share in a climactic final passage that left us all feeling replete and content; with perhaps just a little room for sweetness, which came in the form of a playful yet virtuosic tango-like encore.