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Wagner, Schoenberg and Bartók:
Hilary Hahn (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (conductor), Barbican Hall 29.03.2006 (TJH)

Trust Hilary Hahn to make Schoenberg sound cool.  Who but this prodigious 26-year old American – whose recordings have taken in every violin concerto from Bach to Brahms to Bernstein – could find something in Schoenberg's knotty, uncompromising polyphony to bop her head to?  An underplayed and underappreciated masterpiece, Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto is the antithesis of his pupil Berg’s more famous example: where Berg twists his 12-tone rows into appealing melodic contours, Schoenberg's more cerebral offering presents the listener with a profusion of rather austere gestures, which, despite their apparent diversity, can seem rather undifferentiated in the wrong hands.  It can all be rather difficult to take in; in short, it is not music that reveals its charms lightly.

Hahn clearly digs this score, though, and her enthusiasm shone through on Wednesday night.  Playing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Peter Eötvös – also clearly enjoying themselves – Hahn gave a performance that would enthral and entertain even the most stubborn of Schoenberg's detractors.  Her violin line – by turns soulful and spiky – navigated through ever-mutating cross-sections of the orchestra, an Ariadne's Thread wending its way through Schoenberg's shifting labyrinth.  Exchanging regular glances with guest leader Andrew Haveron, her chemistry with the orchestra was readily apparent, and Eötvös's detailed conducting ensured they gave as good as they got.  Hahn's playing throughout was clear, inviting and unerringly accurate, making her extreme virtuosity sound not only effortless, but essential to the musical argument – an argument that seemed, in the hands of this gifted musician, as easy to take in, and as charming, as any great Romantic masterwork.  After the concerto was finished and the ferocious applause had died down, she gave a lovely encore of the Andante from Bach's Second Solo Violin Sonata, and it was telling that – despite the enormous disparity of style – both works seemed to inhabit the same musical territory.  A tremendous achievement.

Framing this singular highlight were Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra.  In the former Eötvös drew from the strings a muted intimacy, all half-tones and subtle control, with only a smattering of birdsong from the winds to leaven the mood.  Though perhaps a little monochromatic overall, it effectively set up and counterbalanced the Schoenberg, making for a refreshing start to the evening.

The Hungarian Eötvös was really on home turf in the Concerto for Orchestra though, and his discipline and attention to detail were complemented here by a sinewy energy that permeated every aspect of the BBCSO's performance.  In the first movement, there was subdued menace from the first tremolo string chords, but it soon gave way to knockabout good humour in the cheeky Gioco delle Coppie, sounding much less fey than usual with sharp woodwind accenting and an especially memorable turn from the third bassoon.  The Elegia is the heart of the work, and here Eötvös gave it a properly elegiac quality – something all too often lost under too much nocturnal noodling – betraying a greater depth of feeling than one would have thought possible in such a short movement.  Bartók's merciless and rather ill-tempered parody of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony in the Intermezzo Interotto was carried off with tongue firmly in cheek, while the finale zipped along at an impressive pace, tribute to the BBCSO’s long experience playing the work.  In all, it provided an enjoyable end to an unexpectedly entertaining evening.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff





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