Hilary Hahn is a controversial violinist in some respects. Surely she has a large fan base and is arguably the most famous violinist of her generation. Yet "hardcore" classical music fans often dislike her interpretations, preferring the "old schoolers," like Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, or Nathan Milstein. This disc is possibly the strongest argument available that she can match those violinists.
The inception of the violin concerto of Samuel Barber was somewhat stormy. Barber was originally commissioned the work by the father of a talented violinist named Iso Briselli (a fellow graduate of the 1934 class of Curtis School of Music) who wanted a new concerto to call his own with which he could show off his pyrotechnics. Barber accepted, and took his commission in advance. When shown each of the first two movements as they were completed, the young virtuoso complained that they were too easy. When presented with the finale, he deemed it impossible, and demanded Barber refund the commission, which unfortunately had been spent during the trip that Barber had used composed the concerto.
With the future of the concerto in jeopardy, the Curtis staff saved the day. The concerto (with the full orchestral score reduced to piano) was given its first successful performance by Curtis students in front a small audience of Curtis instructors, including the founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. All was settled Barber kept the commission, and Briselli gave up performance rights to the concerto (which he couldn't play anyways).
The concerto opens with a lovely statement by the violin, and that word is probably the word best used to describe not only the first, but the second movement as well, a lovely andante that will agonize you. Juxtaposed with these are sections of increasing harmonic tensions which form the basis of the concerto, and eventually give justification to the last movement, a pull-no-punches finale which really earned the "unplayable" label given it by it's commissioner.
Hilary Hahn plays both the warm sounding passages and the tense passages with impeccable tone, and the Chamber Orchestra of St. Paul seems well suited to play Barber's creation. When the finale arrives, they really take the bull by the horns, and in fact speed it up to the point that you wonder how it is physically possible that Hahn plays those passages, and it is just as amazing, if not more so, when every single violinist on stage plays the main theme at a speed that not even Itzakh Perlman attempted.
Meyer's violin concerto was met much more peaceably then Barber's was. Bass virtuoso and composer Edgar Meyer first met Hahn in NYC when they played a concert together (they played one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos), and it was here that he pledged to write a concerto for the then 19-year-old Hahn. During the first half of 1999, it was faxed to Hahn page by page as it was completed, and the result is a work of enigmatic tonal qualities, as well as the kind of technical writing would make most fully trained violinists cringe with fear.
The concerto also shows extensive knowledge of the violin on the part of Meyer's part, making good use of the harmonics on the instrument, as well as such spectacular double stops that you'll be wondering whether Hahn is the only violinist performing (she is). Also, this concerto was written specifically for Hahn, and this is the only recording of it to date.
In Hilary Hahn's other recordings, it is not unusual for people to criticize the interpretation, the words "breathless," and "overly-bright" coming up often. No such claim can be made of her performance on this disc as the premiere recording of Meyer's light and lyrical concerto, it should also be looked upon as the definitive recording, and the Barber is so recent, that most of the great violinists mentioned at the top didn't make recordings of his concerto.
The Barber makes an ideal companion to Meyer's violin concerto this is a great pairing. Hahn plays the Barber concerto as beautifully as I've heard it, and St. Paul's Chamber Orchestra seems well suited to the orchestral accompaniment. If you are to get any disc of Hahn's, get this one, but not only because she's playing, but because these are great recordings in and of themselves.
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Violin Concerto Op.14
St Paul Chamber Orchestra
Hilary Hahn, violin
Concerto For Violin And Orchestra, Op. 14
- Presto in moto
- Movement I
- Movement II