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Positive Feedback ISSUE 15
september/october 2004


Music to the Max!
by Max Dudious


BACH, J.S. - Bach Concertos (for violin and diverse instruments) - Hilary Hahn, et al. Jeffrey Kahane, Cond./ Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra - DG 474 639-2 (SACD), 57:40 4 Stars

I have previously reviewed this recording of Bach violin concertos featuring Hilary Hahn. It is an excellent recording, and I wanted to mention it again because I recently had occasion to listen to it in direct comparison with the Alexander Sitkovetsky reading of, in particular, the Double Concerto, BWV 1043. Both readings are excellent. Sitkovetsky's emphasis is on his beautiful tone and Bach's long singing line. Hahn's emphasis is on the counterpoint, perhaps one might say the mathematics of the piece.

Hilary Hahn is gaining the reputation of having considerable intellect guiding her playing hand as well as her writing hand (in her own album notes). It is not surprising that her brisk tempi in playing this piece seem to emphasize fleetness of fingering, the dance-like approach to syncopation, while coaxing a certain golden tone from her instrument that expresses Hilary's unique musical personality. Both are exquisite performances. One is lively; while the other is more involved in the long singing line. Either approach works well with Bach.

The solution? Find room on your shelf for one of each. If you're a Bach lover (and who isn't?) you'll find the SACD engineering really lights up the music, compared to the standard CD. I find SACD helps me follow the various lines more easily.


EDWARD ELGAR - Concerto for Violin and Orchestra - Hilary Hahn, violin: RALPH VAUGHAN-WILLIAMS - The Lark Ascending - Hilary Hahn, violin; Sir Colin Davis, Cond./ London Symphony Orchestra - DG B0003026-02, 66:04 4 Stars (Also available in SACD.)

This latest entry from DG and Hilary Hahn demonstrates her ability to take on the demanding Elgar violin concerto, written for the virtuoso Fritz Kreisler. With her usual fearless aplomb, she turns in a splendid performance. Of Elgar it has been written (in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music), "His harmonic language derives from Schumann and Brahms coloured by the Wagnerian chromaticism endemic to his generation, the whole being lightened by a gracefulness akin to Bizet and Saint-SaŽns. Like his personality, his music veers from extrovert warmth and geniality to a deep introspective melancholy." From the opening all this is evident in this example of his music. In a 1912 letter, to his beloved friend Alice Stuart-Wortley, Elgar wrote, "I have written out my soul in the concerto ... and you know it."

In this piece Hilary Hahn shows her mastery of all the technique that is required to display the soul of Elgar, which she does with great delicacy and reverence. This is a wonderful piece, written as Stravinsky was entering the musical world of Paris, but definitely looking backward toward what is best in Brahms, a blend of lyricism and melancholy. If you like the Brahms Violin Concerto, you'll likely like this. It is a big, late-romantic violin concerto played by a soloist whose talent is equally big. Sir Colin and the LSO do a tasteful and admirable job of accompanying.

If Hilary Hahn shows her ability to handle some of the more demanding of Bach's writing for violin at the most brisk tempi in her first DG album, with Ralph Vaughan-Williams' The Lark Ascending she shows her mastery of the long singing line, more pointedly, the even greater control required to play softly at slow tempi. As a matter of fact, she shows her ability to play loudly and softly, quickly and slowly, from the lowest to the highest register, here trilling, there double stopping. Whatever the music calls for, she is always in total control. And, if she is taken with the mathematical aspects of Bach, the Lark shows her equally comfortable in the impressionistic sphere, the equivalent water-color tone poems of English sunsets, that Vaughan-Williams invokes. Again, from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, "The basis of his music is melody, rhythm sometimes being unsubtle, but its visionary quality, as in the masque Job and the 5th and 9th symphonies, its broad humanity, and its appeal at several levels make it a remarkable expression of the national spirit in music just as the man himself personified all that was best in the liberal 19th century tradition of which he was a scion."

I'd add The Lark Ascending to the short-list of Vaughan-Williams' Greatest Hits, especially in the hands of Hilary Hahn. It is no wonder critics from every record-reviewing publication are getting in line to sing her praises, no wonder Time Magazine has proclaimed her, "America's best young classical musician." If you listen to her play Bach, Elgar, and Vaughan-Williams, you might likely jump on the Hilary Bandwagon, too. Great playing. Sir Colin and the LSO capture the (for me) somewhat mystical tone of this work spot-on. This is one of those records where the soloist, the orchestra, and the recording engineers got it right. If you like Elgar, or Vaughan-Williams, or Hilary Hahn, you go out and get it, right?

Highly recommended.

This article also appears in the current issue of Audiophile Audition.