Chloë Hanslip in Interview: Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1

Given her extensive and distinguished career, it seems astonishing that the violinist Chloë Hanslip is only 26 years old. But, by the time she reached the age of ten, Chloë had already appeared on some of the world’s major concert platforms, including London’s Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York, having embarked on studies at the Yehudi Menuhin School aged just five at the iconic violinist’s invitation. She went on to study with the Russian pedagogue Zakhar Bron for ten years in Germany and, amongst other film appearances, was featured in the BBC 1 documentary Can You Make A Genius?, which screened in 2001. Of her many mentors, she has named the great Ida Haendel as perhaps the most inspirational.

Aged 15, Chloë’s second CD, a recording of Bruch’s 1st and 3rd Violin Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Martyn Brabbins, won international acclaim for her musical maturity and depth of tonal command. The disc led to Chloë winning the ‘Young British Classical Performer’ award at the 2003 Classical BRITS among other awards and accolades – the same year that she made her American and Japanese concerto debuts following her first appearance at the BBC Proms in 2002.

Chloë is now established throughout the world as a concerto soloist and chamber musician. She is continually adding to her repertoire of well- and lesser-known romantic virtuouso works and has also won praise for her championing of contemporary composers. In recent years, CDs of romantic concertos by Benjamin Godard and John Adams’ Violin Concerto have won particular acclaim and she has worked with many of the world’s leading conductors from Mariss Jansons and Sir Andrew Davis to Leonard Slatkin and Michail Jurowski, with a core repertoire that stretches from Sibelius and Shostakovich to Korngold and Britten. As a dedicated chamber musician, she has worked with Stephen Isserlis, Gerhard Schulz and Angela Hewitt among others at events such as the Open Chamber Music at Prussia Cove and Italy’s Trasimeno Festival.

On Monday 18 November, Chloë will be performing that same Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 26 which signaled her arrival as a major talent, when she joins the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Libor Pešek for a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff. The programme will also include Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (‘Unfinished’), the Overture to Johann Strauss’s opera Die Fledermaus and Dvořák’s dramatic Symphony No. 7. Chloë spoke with Steph Power about the Bruch ahead of the concert – and about touring the work alongside it’s direct forbear, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto Op. 64.



Steph Power: You’re bringing to St David’s Hall one of the best-known and best-loved romantic concertos in the repertoire, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 – a piece which you yourself know incredibly well; you recorded it at the very young age of 15 and have played it many times since.

Chloë Hanslip: Yes I was very young when I first recorded the Bruch! It’s such a phenomenal concerto actually – as I get older and the more I practise it, the more I find in it. And I always look forward to coming to play in Cardiff!

How has your understanding of the Bruch changed or grown over the years?

Just on a very basic level I really have got to know Bruch’s orchestration – how he combines the instruments, but also to know the individual orchestral parts. I think that’s so important when you’re playing a concerto; to know exactly what’s going on behind you. Because it’s just a very large form of chamber music really, so you have to be aware if you have a duet, say, or if you’re accompanying. For example, there’s a wonderful moment in the second movement where I have a sort of conversation accompanying the cellos and it’s just so fabulous to do that; to connect with the orchestral sections and really work with what they’re playing.

So the work you do as a chamber musician really informs your concerto playing?

Yes it does – and I love playing chamber music. It’s almost a re-set button in a way; you really listen and understand what’s going on when you’re blending a sound – which you can’t always quite do when you’re playing a concerto – but having that mentality I think is very beneficial. But also, every time I play the Bruch, I try to find something different in it. Working with different orchestras and different conductors gives you that opportunity as well, so it’s always exciting.

You’ve worked with Libor Pešek and the CNSO before I believe, but this will be the first time you’ve played the Bruch together? It’s the orchestra’s 20th anniversary this year so a celebratory time to be touring with them.

Yes it is absolutely! I first worked with Libor and the orchestra about five or six years ago. We toured some Prokofiev then, and also played Samuel Barber and Philip Glass. I loved working with them – the orchestra has a wonderful, deep sound – so I’m looking forward to working with them all again, and on the Bruch. Each conductor interprets the orchestration slightly differently if you like, and that always gives me something new to think about and work with.

At other venues on your tour together you’ll be playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto Op. 64. What’s it like playing the Bruch and Mendelssohn back-to-back as it were in that intensive way on tour?

I enjoy it. It’s lovely sometimes to play the same concerto but I do enjoy having a varied repertoire at any one time. It keeps things fresh and I suppose you delve that little bit further if you’re constantly changing pieces because you’re so focused on that. At the same time if I was asked to play the Bruch or the Mendelssohn ten times in a row I wouldn’t complain!

When he was composing this first violin concerto, Bruch sought the advice of the violinist Joseph Joachim. But he also went to Ferdinand David, I gather; the violinist who had helped Mendelssohn twenty years or so previously?

Yes, that’s right – but I think the concertos are quite different in a way. The Bruch has a slightly richer sound if you like in terms of orchestration – although the Mendelssohn is also absolutely glorious to play; I would hesitate to say it’s more vivacious but it is lighter I think. The Bruch is a little bit more introverted. The first movement is a Vorspiel; a prelude, which is quite an unusual marking for the beginning of a concerto. The way the timpani roll starts and the violin just appears out of nowhere, it’s really atmospheric. Also the last movement of the Bruch has an incredible lyricism that’s quite unusual for a last movement.

The Bruch’s considered very much a romantic showpiece I think?

Yes it is – and the last movement is great fun to play. It’s also really dance-like and you can really get your teeth into it!

As well as your extensive romantic virtuoso repertoire, you also work with contemporary composers. In fact, the last time I heard you in Cardiff you were performing Huw Watkins’ Concertino.

I think it’s so important to have a very broad repertoire. As you say, I’ve played Huw Watkins in Cardiff – also Simon Holt, plus there’s the Glass Violin Concerto we mentioned earlier, and Brett Dean, Michael Nyman… I just find it incredibly exciting to be able to talk with a composer – you know you can’t do that with Bruch or Mendelssohn! You can read everything you like about them but you can’t actually ask them ‘what were you thinking about here?’ and ‘what’s your intention there?’

So, when you work with living composers on a new piece, in a way it’s not unlike the work Joseph Joachim did with Bruch and Brahms and other composers in his day in terms of reflecting back to them your ideas as a violinist?

I’d never thought of it like that! Yes, I suppose so! I just find it terribly exciting to get new music, to re-live that and to delve further! I’m playing the John Adams again next year and also John Corigliano’s Red Violin concerto again in New Zealand.

If Bruch were alive today and asked you about his first concerto what would you say to him about his writing for violin?

Oh gosh! Honestly, I love the way he’s written the 1st Violin Concerto! It really gives you an opportunity to sing; to create some incredibly special moments with dynamics and with the accompaniment, with the support that you have from the orchestra behind. Technically I wouldn’t say it’s comfortable to play – but it lies very well under the fingers. I don’t think I would change anything in it I have to confess!

He would probably be relieved to hear that as he was apparently very nervous about composing that first violin concerto! It took him a long time to write.

Yes I think that’s true – and he revised it several times as well. But I think it’s just a great concerto and it’s very easy to see why it’s so popular. It sounds very spontaneous and Bruch gives you the flexibility to play around within the piece a little bit if you want – to do something slightly different in each concert. I think that is just one of the many reasons why it’s such a special concerto.