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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor op. 61 (1910) [49:43]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

The Lark Ascending (1920) [16:21]
Hilary Hahn (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
rec. London, Abbey Road, Oct 2003 (Elgar); Dec 2003 (Vaughan Williams)
SACD reviewed in CD format only
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 474 8732 [66:10]


Interesting that Elgar's concerto has become a vehicle for young violinists although of course it started that way with the teenage Menuhin and the elderly Elgar. That classic of the gramophone remains its most celebrated recording .... though certainly not its best. One can carry received veneration too far!

Just as with Mutter's DG Tchaikovsky/Korngold disc, also released this month, the booklet and insert design once again expansively celebrate the cult of the photogenic personality. There are about a dozen photographs of the lissom Ms Hahn in the booklet although, unlike Ms Mutter on her CD, Ms Hahnís image does not appear on the CD. At least Colin Davis gets more of a look-in in the photography stakes than Previn on the Mutter disc.

The LSO know Davis's Elgar (plenty of evidence in the LSO Live! series) and they give a roaringly vital, grandly emphatic and truly urgent account. Davis has developed into a very fine Elgarian. I first heard Davis in Elgar in a late night broadcast in the mid-1970s in a tape of the Violin Concerto with Salvatore Accardo. The orchestra then was, I think, the Boston Symphony - a memorable performance.

Can the elfin Hilary Hahn breathe into the music the grief, exultant joy and passion that this peculiarly volatile and emotional music demands? She can certainly deliver excitement - the starry exultant blitz of notes in the last three minutes of the concerto are just superb. Her way with those slowly produced notes at 16:02 in the Allegro Molto makes me reconsider my coolness but emotional mass is not sustained ... at least by comparison with Heifetz, Sammons and Bean. Ultimately Hahnís tone is slender when I prefer an assurgent fullness in the sound and a heavy animus. My ideal would almost certainly be to have the Elgar concerto played by David Oistrakh or Leonid Kogan. Hahn sounds closer to Kyung-Wha Chung than to either of those two giants. Then again things do catch fire with crushing effect as at 16:00 forward in the first movement and at 9:00 onwards in the finale.

What of the RVW Lark? I have not heard all the variants and have always wondered about Kennedyís. This one is warmer than the clinical version by Pougnet but more detached and cold than the classic recording made by Hugh Bean in the 1970s with Adrian Boult. Once again the orchestral contribution is sensationally balanced and recorded. The Lark has never been so well and artistically served by the technicians as by the DG team.

The recording has a grandiloquent presence that adds crucially to the favourable impact of this disc. As an illustration, listen to the way the squat punched-out chords slam down at the end of the first movement of the Elgar. At the other extreme the floatingly diaphanous lightness of the crooned orchestral strings in the Andante is also rendered with a wondering subtlety.

Once you can get past the thickets of photography you will find a good essay by Michael Steinberg.

Ultimately this is an estimable Elgar concerto rather than a consistently great one. It has in it some of the nagging seeds of greatness and repeat listenings may well change my view. Hahn is a very fine artist but she is in the debt of her orchestra, conductor and DG recording team for a version that made me want to return to this disc again and again.

Rob Barnett

see also review by Marc Bridle


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