Hilary Hahn (violin): The Complete Sony Recordings
rec. 1996-2002 SONY CLASSICAL 88875126182 [5 CDs: 328:05]
Hilary Hahn was just seventeen when she set down the first of these CDs, and she chose to make her recorded debut with some Bach solo violin music. How about that for youthful courage? Sony has repackaged the five discs in chronological order but I’ll be dealing with them in reverse. We are offered no documentation whatsoever, which is a pity, particularly for young collectors just starting out. In spite of that omission, at its almost indecently low price this box is a remarkable bargain.
Listening to Hahn at the outset of her career one is struck by her astonishing technical command, exquisite beauty of tone and, perhaps most remarkably, by an insight into the music extraordinary in one so young. In the last of these five discs the twenty-two year-old Hahn turns in a performance of Mendelssohn’s celebrated concerto that showcases all these features. The tempo indication of the first movement is Allegro molto appassionato, and she successfully avoids the trap that has claimed lesser violinists who seem to prefer to substitute agitato for the appassionato. Hahn’s reluctance to paste too many exaggerated expressive devices into the score brings a freshness and spontaneity to the performance that is totally winning. That she tosses off technical challenges with impunity is almost a given but she also plays with a gloriously pure, singing tone, especially in the upper reaches. The second subject, played with great tenderness, benefits particularly from this, as does the slow movement. Listening to the work with the score reveals that she ignores quite a few of the composer’s dynamic markings, but only in the finale does this bother me just a little, where the opening theme is neither pp nor leggiero. Further in, too, many of the skittering semiquavers are surely too loud and too far forward in the overall texture. Before that, though, she finds the fantasy necessary for the exquisite linking passage.
Hahn chose to couple the Mendelssohn with an undisputed twentieth-century masterpiece. The fearsome technical challenges presented by Shostakovich’s glorious concerto were tossed off by its dedicatee, David Oistrakh, and such is the quality of violin playing today that many more recent performances, often from very young players, have shown a similarly remarkable mastery. Hahn is fearless throughout this work. In the opening “Nocturne” she is slower than most of her rivals, and certainly slow for a Moderato. Concentration is maintained throughout the movement, however, though it is noticeable that when the composer directs the players to slow down, this particular team can barely do so. There is mystery in this music, but there is something equivocal about the night that is being evoked here. The richly woody lower winds of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, plus the perfect balance of events like pianissimo tam-tam strokes keep us guessing and reflecting. The Scherzo is predictably brilliant, where the wind sections – pity the poor first bassoonist – put in as brilliant a show as the soloist. The tempo is very rapid indeed, and if there is a suspicion that, in itself, this does not add to the excitement, the performance carries all before it and the suspicion is only a faint one. The tenderness and sadness of the Passacaglia are beautifully communicated, with Hahn superbly powerful and intense in the parallel octaves – a Shostakovich master-stroke – in the middle of the movement. It is also very pleasing, here and elsewhere in this magnificently recorded account, to register so clearly the important role Shostakovich assigns to the tuba. Hahn, perhaps surprisingly, does not go for surface brilliance in the cadenza, but is careful to allow time for the reminiscences of earlier themes to register. Surface brilliance is not lacking in the finale however, and it brings to an end a distinguished performance indeed of this glorious work, magnificently supported by Marek Janowski and the orchestra.
In the Brahms Concerto, as early as the second subject you will be won over by the exquisite poise of the playing, as well as the ravishing beauty of tone. Again, there is a certain straightness about this interpretation: Hahn is, in a strange, intangible way, content to let Brahms speak to the listener without too much interference on her part. The result is deeply satisfying. The performance is brilliantly supported by the sturdy playing of the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. The coupling, another slightly unorthodox choice, is Stravinsky’s Concerto, one of my favourite works. I missed Hilary Hahn’s reading first time around – as indeed I did a number of these performances – and was looking forward to hearing it now. There is no shortage of stunningly brilliantly playing here, but alas, this is one performance that is not destined to find its place amongst my favourites. Hahn’s choice of very rapid tempi in the outer movements, plus a rather uncharacteristically robust and forceful approach, makes for a lack of that playfulness that is so important in these two movements. Speed alone does not account for this, as one could imagine a rapid, madcap reading adding to, rather than distracting from, that playfulness. Here, though, the music too often sounds driven, even aggressive; not at all my idea of the work. The two slow movements fare better, but in the second of the two Hahn chooses a tempo which is this time very slow. Bravo to the orchestra, notably the wind principals for keeping up, but there’s not much classicism here, neo- or otherwise.
Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto appears alongside a work composed for Hahn by Edgar Meyer, courageous programming indeed. Hahn tosses off the pyrotechnical finale of the Barber with astonishing, if predictable, brilliance. More striking, however, is the extreme beauty of her tone in the lovely melody that opens the work, as well as in the low-lying passage when the main melody of the slow movement returns. It is this, as much as her technical prowess, that is the essence of her art. Her performance of the Barber is as satisfying as any you will encounter, but it is a strange work overall. He rather milks his material, lovely though it all is, in the first movement, and the second, where the soloist is silent for the first three of its nine minutes, is really two movements in one, with tender lyricism alternating with something much more anguished and dissonant. The Saint Paul principal oboe is particularly eloquent in the opening solo. Then comes the finale, three minutes of non-stop brilliance, tacked on for good measure. It’s almost as if Barber decided to compose three short concertos and have them played end to end. Edgar Meyer is a musician active in many fields and styles. Composed in 1999, his Violin Concerto in 1999 is in two movements and runs for a little under half an hour. The first opens with a simple tonal melody from the soloist over a sparse woodwind accompaniment. This alternates with faster, highly rhythmic music in irregular beats. Suggestions of American minimalism are as faint as those of the English pastoral school, but both are there nonetheless. The second movement begins with a ruminative, seven-minute passage of tolling sonorities over long pedal notes. This eventually gives way to a gentle hoe-down that becomes more energetic, the only concession to virtuoso display throughout the work. This concerto is no masterpiece, I suppose, but it is refreshing to encounter so engaging and approachable a work, and one that features so many beautiful noises and felicitous pieces of writing. Hahn’s performance is beyond praise.
David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra provide outstanding support for Hahn in the Beethoven Concerto. Indeed, this is a particularly interesting performance from the orchestral point of view. If you see this work as primarily a serene masterpiece you might be surprised by the vehemence of certain accented passages in the accompaniment, up to, and including, the two closing cadential chords. This is masterly playing and conducting, and the opening tutti, spacious and broad at a flowing tempo, encompasses both serenity and drama. Hilary Hahn matches this approach, without quite going so far as the conductor in his search for dramatic contrast. I’ve heard more lilting performances of the finale – for that I still return to Josef Suk with Boult, recorded for EMI in 1970 – but this is a magnificent performance (with cadenzas by Fritz Kreisler) that would make an excellent introduction to the work as it also would a single version in any decent collection.
For many, the jury will still be out on Bernstein the composer – even Bernstein the conductor, for some – but I firmly believe that the finest of his works lay claim to an enduring place in the repertoire. The Serenade for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion with which Hahn chose to couple her account of the Beethoven was completed in 1954 and is presented as “after Plato’s Symposium”. Thus each of the five movements is named after a Platonic character – Phaedrus and Socrates feature – but happily the work is easy to listen to and to appreciate without having to study the original text. Hilary Hahn brings all her customary skills to bear. Sweetness of tone is uppermost, appropriately in this case, and this is indeed a supremely lyrical rendering of a supremely lyrical work. I prefer this performance to Bernstein’s own with Isaac Stern (also on Sony), and not only because of the extra purity of Hahn’s tone, but also because of the superbly alert and trenchant orchestral playing under Zinman. Philippe Quint’s performance on Naxos with Marin Alsop is also very fine, but this really is a work that merits more than one version in your collection, and Hahn’s is the finest I have heard.
Coming to the earliest of these performances, a lifelong allergy to Bach’s unaccompanied string music – indeed, to almost all unaccompanied string music, Britten’s Suites for cello being honourable exceptions – removes most of the credibility from any opinion I might hold on Hilary Hahn’s Bach playing. She is on record as holding the composer in reverence, and this is clearly playing of remarkable insight, barely credible when you realise that she was only seventeen years old. A few eyebrows might be raised at one or two tempo choices, and connoisseurs and students of this repertoire will no doubt refer to players with greater experience. However, if you can take the music and if, like me, you are bowled over by the attractions of the rest of the collection, I doubt that these Bach performances will seriously disappoint.
Details of Content
CD 1 [78.44] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita for solo violin No. 3 in E major, BWV1006
Partita for solo violin No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Sonata for solo violin No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005
rec. Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, New York, June and December 1996, March 1997
CD 2:[74.36] Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) Serenade for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion (1954)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
rec. Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, February and June 1998
CD 3:[49.33] Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (1940) Edgar MEYER (b. 1960)
Violin Concerto (1999)
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra/Hugh Wolff
rec. Ordway Centre for the Performing Arts, Saint Paul, September 1999
CD 4:[61.22] Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (first performed 1879) Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Violin Concerto in D (1931)
Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner
rec. Lyndhurst Hall, London, February and June 2001
CD 5:[63.50] Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844) Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 (1948)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Hugh Wolff (Mendelssohn) and Marek Janowski
rec. Oslo Konserthus, February and April 2002