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Hilary Hahn – A Portrait
Documentary [107:00]
Including performances:
Erich KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin concerto in D major, Op.35 (1945) [26:17]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata for piano and violin in G Major K.301* [14:39]
Hilary Hahn (violin)
Natalie Zhu (piano)*,
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano
rec. Berlin, Philharmonie, 24 March 2004; Munich, Philharmonie im Gasteig, 12 December 2005*.
Ratio 16:9. Widescreen. All regions.
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Sound formats: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1.
Menu language: English
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00440 073 4192 [147:56]


Documentaries about musicians that are made and marketed by their recording companies can be suspect.  This one is more than suspect.  It is boring. 

Hilary Hahn is an exciting young violinist, one of a group of young fiddlers that seem destined for great things.  She has a wonderfully focused tone, technique to burn and an innate musicality.  If you have heard any of her recordings, you will already know this.  This film will add little if anything to your understanding of Hahn's art or her influences.

The cameras follow Hahn on tour to Berlin, Dresden and Hong Kong, and drop in on a recital rehearsal in Philadelphia and a recording session in London.  Kent Nagano and Sir Colin Davis give brief testimonials about her artistry.  There is an obligatory visit to the Curtis Institute where she trained, but beyond a couple of sound bites from Curtis luminary Gary Graffman, this visit tells us little.  The sequence in which Hahn takes the camera crew for a guided tour of the Curtis Institute feels like padding.  It fills in time, but tells us nothing about the violinist.  Scores of violinists go through Curtis every year.  Few go on to have careers like Hahn's.  Viewers want to know what it is that makes Hahn different.  I doubt it has anything to do with carving the Curtis Halloween pumpkin. 

Nor, it seems, does it have to do with an informed understanding of the music she plays.  Her commentary on Korngold and especially on Bach sounds incredibly naïve, though there is no doubting her instinctive understanding of their music.  She sounds more comfortable discussing the practicalities of music performance, whether in relation to interaction with her audience or the mechanics of fingering when playing Paganini. 

In a sense it is unfair to expect a documentary of this kind to be particularly interesting.  Hahn is a young trained professional and has a job as a concert violinist.  Why should a short film about her working life be any more interesting than a documentary on a young lawyer of her age?  She has not in her first couple of decades experienced the political upheaval that that beset the great violinists of the past, like Menuhin, Oistrakh and others. 

However, her life has not been without incident.  The makers of this documentary could have extracted interesting details from her life or endeavoured to give her story some depth and colour.  After watching this documentary, you will be none the wiser as to Hahn's family background, or the early influences on her musical life.  Another tantalising prospect left untapped is hinted at by the opening credits.  As the film begins and ends it is Hahn's performance of Edgar Meyer's violin concerto that we hear.  Meyer wrote the piece for Hahn and she had an important role in testing the violin part section by section as Meyer wrote it.  Surely this involvement Hahn's part in the creation of a new violin concerto – and quite a good one as it happens, in a minimalist-influenced neo-romantic style – is something of note.  Perhaps licensing issues between Sony – Meyer's label and formerly Hahn's – and Deutsche Grammophon are to blame for the silence on this subject. 

To sum up, even Hahn's most loyal fans will be disappointed with this documentary. 

Fortunately, there is a saving grace, in the form of  music.  Playing music, after all, is what Hahn does best, and long after you have resolved never to watch the documentary again, you can return confidently to this DVD for Hahn's recording of the Korngold violin concerto.  Hahn's performance of this concerto in concert with the  Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Kent Nagano is broken up into its constituent movements and used to punctuate the documentary, but luckily someone at Deutsche Grammophon realised that the DVD's attractions would be enhanced by allowing the concerto to be played through separately. 

Hahn's performance of the Korngold concerto is committed and reveals her obvious affection for the piece.  As anyone acquainted with her recording of the Barber concerto on Sony will readily attest, Hahn's tone and temperament are well suited to bitter-sweet lyricism, and so it proves again here.  I would not choose to listen to this live concert performance over Perlman's classic account on EMI or the recent James Ehnes recording on Onyx, but it is a performance worth hearing and rehearing nonetheless. 

The DVD also includes a bonus performance of a Mozart sonata, drawn from a concert given in Munich in 2005, no doubt linked with Hahn and Zhu's 2004 disc of Mozart sonatas.  I have not heard that disc, but while I cannot say that Hahn's tone is harsh, as Michael Cookson found in his review, I agree with him that Hahn's Mozart lacks something in sparkle and variety of tone.  The emphasis here seems to be on beauty of sound rather than on Mozartian fun. 

The other bonus features are less interesting – a photo gallery, a promotional video, a list of Hahn's recordings and interview excerpts that tie in to the Mozart sonata album. 

For Hahn's fans only, then, and – Korngold aside – perhaps not for all of them.

Tim Perry




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