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Jonathan Woolf
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Philippe Hirschhorn – live performances 1967-77
Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major Op. 6 (1817) [32:31]6
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.77 (1878) [40:39]2
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata No 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 (c.1720) [22:55]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1888) [22:32]1
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Tzigane – Rapsodie de concert for violin and piano (1924) [9:10]1
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto (1935) [24:35]3
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto Op. 47 (1903 rev. 1905) [30:33]4
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 (1878) [36:35]5
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Five Melodies for violin and piano Op.35b [11:32]1
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835–1921)
Caprice d’après l’Etude en forme de valse Op.52 No.6 arranged Eugène Ysaÿe [7:21]0
Philippe Hirschhorn (violin) with
Helmuth Barth (piano) recorded in Schwetzinger, 19741
Orchestre National de Belgique/René Defossez, recorded live at the 1967 Queen Elizabeth of Belgium International Violin Competition6
Sudfunk Sinfonie Orchester Stuttgart/Jiri Starek, recorded live in June 19742
Lidiya Leonskaya (piano) recorded live at the 1967 Queen Elizabeth of Belgium International Violin Competition0
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Uri Segal, undated3
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Uri Segal, recorded live October 19744
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Ferdinand Leitner, recorded live May 19775
DOREMI DHR 7906-08 [3 CDs: 79:16 + 80:36 + 78:35]




Doremi has chosen to emblazon the fact of Philippe Hirschhorn first prize at the 1967 Queen Elizabeth of Belgium International Violin Competition on the front of its booklet and three CD set. Perhaps it’s a measure of how little biographical material has been produced that this youthful win becomes the fulcrum of interest. And yet one knows of several fine players who were his pupils and whose reminiscences of the tragically short-lived Hirschhorn might be worth hearing – not least Philippe Graffin. Doremi’s note is really a short paragraph; born in Riga in 1946, studied with Mikhail Vainman in Leningrad; the Brussels win; and musical partnerships with Argerich and Maisky – who’s quoted on the booklet to the effect that the violinist was “the most unbelievable musician I ever met…he possessed mystical hypnotic power.” I’ve never known the nature of the ill health that ended his concert-giving career but after that breach he taught in Brussels – somewhat strangely called Bruxelles in this English language release – and died at fifty in 1996. 

These are all live performances. He made hardly any commercial discs – I’m aware of only the Lekeu sonata and participation in Mozart’s Oboe Quintet. The 1967 competition Paganini is here. After a little time to settle and one or two stiff sounding pizzicati Hirschhorn digs in with considerable panache. There’s an especially fine first movement cadenza, some big fruity tone in the slow movement and tremendous dexterity in the finale. He receives tumultuous applause and doubtless the jury was impressed – the jury by the way consisted of Oistrakh, Menuhin, Francescatti, Szigeti, Grumiaux, Gertler, Gingold, Rostal and Olof. But the one thing that seems abundantly evident is his vibrato. It’s extremely fast and rather unvaried and lends a tense, febrile quality especially in slower music and particularly on held notes. It’s going to be the theme of this review that his splendid playing, musical, thoughtful, not especially showy, is time and time again mitigated by that endemic flaw. 

The Brahms concerto dates from seven years later, 1974. The orchestra sounds rather blowsy but Hirschhorn plays with masculine eloquence, occasionally employing deft rubati but not enough really to impede rhythmic flow. There are passing intonational problems but the serious-minded direction of the music making means there are no idiosyncrasies or indulgences. Occasionally one might feel a want of real personality in the playing but I don’t find it impersonal as such, or objectified. Tonally he is hampered by a lack of vibrato variance and it’s this I think that lowers the immediacy of his playing. 

The Brahms Op.108 sonata was resonantly recorded in 1974 and his partner was Helmuth Barth. The architectural instincts are all there but the lower strings sound strongly over-vibrated and there’s a sense of tonal one-dimensionality about the performance. There’s plenty of vibrancy in Tzigane – and a few technical hurdles – but colour is once again sapped. His tone sounds rather razory in the Bach but fortunately this is not one of those marmoreal Russian performances; it’s sensitively phrased and in the faster music, and in the Fuga especially, we can hear how powerful and impressive a player he really was. The Berg was recorded in London with Uri Segal and the Philharmonia – undated though presumably around 1974. Cool and aerial his tone takes on an unwanted bleat that whilst it brings obvious expression to the Chorale sounds alien to the performance as a whole. 

The Cologne orchestra doesn’t sound much interested in the Sibelius. Here Hirschhorn is on communing and technically strong form with the exception of a few understandable and tired-sounding bow crunches in the finale. The expression is not overdone – one senses a rather cool, if not quite aloof profile from all these performances – though once more a fuller range of tone colours are really needed. The Tchaikovsky was badly taped – cloudy, veiled. The date of 1977 could easily have been 1950 or much earlier. Leitner is a conductor I always enjoy but this is a nothing-special performance; it’s conventional, unostentatious, very musical but not especially distinctive. 

Nothing here substantiates Doremi’s well-meant hyperbole that Hirschhorn was “probably one of the finest violinists of the century.” It’s a matter of real disappointment that Vaiman couldn’t shape Hirschhorn’s fast vibrato or that he wasn’t sent to someone who could have slowed it and allowed the kind of variations of speed and colour necessary to complement his first class technical and musical armouries. 

Jonathan Woolf 




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