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Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op.6 (c. 1817-1818) [37:56]
Louis SPOHR (1784–1859)
Violin Concerto No. 8 in A minor, Op.47 ‘In Form einer Gesangsszene’ (‘In the form of a vocal scena’) (1816) [19:52]
Hilary Hahn (violin)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Eiji Oue
rec. October 2005 (Paganini), February 2006 (Spohr), Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, Sweden. DDD 
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6232 [57:48]


It’s refreshing when a major record label issues music from the lesser performed byways of the Romantic concerto repertoire. These two contemporaneous scores fit the bill admirably. Paganini’s Violin concerto No. 1 has rather fallen out of favour with performers although there are several recordings in the catalogues and Spohr’s Violin concerto No. 8 is virtually never heard in the concert hall and I am aware of only a small number of available recordings.

Paganini and Spohr were virtuoso violinists who in the 1800s travelled extensively as celebrities throughout Europe dazzling audiences with their brilliant playing. As close contemporaries they knew each other, although accounts differ as to how often they met. Furthermore they liked to play their is own works to their audiences. Spohr, who played as a soloist far less as the years went by, tended to concentrate more on teaching and composing, gaining great prominence in his day with a prolific output of works in most genres. Six of Paganini’s violin concertos have survived. He also wrote a substantial amount of compositions for the guitar. Another factor that they have in common is how interest in their music, with only a handful of exceptions, began to wane soon after their death. Their music fell rapidly out of favour.

Both Paganini and Spohr as experienced touring performers would have been very aware of the variable nature of the orchestral resources that would accompany them. As these two violin concertos clearly demonstrate the orchestral writing is largely undemanding. At times it felt as if I was hearing music that could easily be within the capabilities of a village orchestra; yet strangely it doesn’t seem to matter. Not surprisingly the committed and highly professional Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Eiji Oue never seem taxed but no matter how hard they play they cannot play the music better than it is.

Born in Genoa, Italy in 1782 Paganini holds an esteemed status as probably the worlds finest ever virtuoso violinist and certainly the best known. Paganini’s exhibitionist Violin Concerto No. 1 is, to use a literary analogy, more Dan Brown than William Shakespeare but highly entertaining nevertheless. Even with a performance as fine as this from Hahn it is the sort of work that I can probably hear only a couple of times before wanting to hear a concerto more substantial in content.   

Composed around 1817-1818 Paganini’s remarkable three movement concerto has been performed over the years in a number of truncated versions but here Hilary Hahn is disposed to use the original version with a cadenza by Emile Sauret.

It is fascinating how one can wince at the vulgarity of Paganini’s writing but the next moment be enchanted by his ingenuity, charm and warmth. It is often difficult to forecast what Paganini will do next and his unpredictability is a characteristic that can be highly appealing. However what becomes predictable, and almost unbearable, is the simultaneous bass drum and cymbal crash with which Paganini peppers the score in the manner of a village Oompah Band.

Hilary Hahn in the opening allegro maestoso brings out an abundance of charm and fun. In the central adagio Hahn’s playing is endearing in music that combines Paganini’s innate lyricism and frequent passion with pomposity and brashness. In her expert hands the final rondo, allegro spirituoso becomes a tempestuous and high-spirited roller-coaster. Paganini’s dazzling pyrotechnics present little difficulty for the gifted Hahn who treats the music with utmost respect.   

My confident first choice in the Paganini is from Itzhak Perlman. My version is from a three disc set of the ‘Great Romantic Concertos’ with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Lawrence Foster. This was recorded in London 1971 and remastered on EMI Classics CMS 7 64922 2. Perlman’s ultra-confident, direct and robust performance brings out a strong gypsy-like feel in the music, compared to Hahn’s vibrato-laden and less fluid yet far more delicate and restrained approach.

One of the best known alternative versions of the Paganini is the vivacious and exciting performance by Salvatore Accardo with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. I have this Accardo account on a three disc set of the ‘Six Violin Concertos’ released in 1992 on Deutsche Grammophon 437 210-2.

Born in 1784 in Braunschweig (Brunswick) in the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg, now Lower Saxony in Germany, Ludwig (Louis) Spohr is primarily remembered today as a distinguished concert violinist rather than for his extremely successful composing career. Spohr completed fifteen violin concertos with the sophisticated Violin concerto No. 8 being generally acknowledged as the finest of them all, with the Violin concerto No. 9 in D minor also receiving considerable praise.    

In the opening allegro molto, with its notable song-like subject, Hahn’s approach is fluent and sweet-toned also turning in a tender and songful adagio. I enjoyed Hahn’s sparkling and splendidly judged performance of the dramatic final allegro moderato. Throughout I was conscious of her preference for strong vibrato and at times I sensed a hint of unease. 

From my own collection an account of the Spohr that I favour over Hahn is the highly characterful and irresistibly spirited performance from Pierre Amoyal and the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne under Armin Jordan. This was recorded in 1979 in Switzerland and has been remastered on Warner Classics Apex 2564 60428-2. The coupling of the Concertante in G for violin and harp, WoO 13 and the Sonata in G for cello and harp, Op. 115 adds to the attraction of this excellently recorded disc.

Although not part of my collection I have friends who highly regard the version of the Spohr by Ulf Hoelscher and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Christian Fröhlich on the CPO label. The recording is available either on a single disc with the violin concertos No.12 and 13 on CPO 999 187 or as part of a 6 disc set of the complete violin concertos 1-15 on CPO 999 6572.

Hahn’s Deutsche Grammophon recording has a warm and soft focus with the violin closely caught; although one occasionally feels a sharp edge to her tone. The booklet notes include a gushing and somewhat uninspiring essay from Hahn entitled “The violin as a voice”. Tully Potter’s booklet notes are interesting and whet the appetite for more information about the scores and the composers.

These fine performances are not my first choices in these two fascinating concertos. However, the release is rewarding and makes an attractive proposition for any lover of Romantic violin concertos.

 Michael Cookson


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