Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 / Spohr: Violin Concerto No. 8
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Paganini / Spohr: Violin Concertos
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HILARY HAHN SIMPLY SHINES IN THESE ROMANTIC VIRTUOSO SHOWPIECES Star violinist Hilary Hahn performs violin concertos by two predominant violin virtuosos of the early Romantic era, Italian Niccolo Paganini and German Louis Spohr. Both concertos were composed around 1816 to serve as effective showpieces for their composersÂ tour activities and are packed with stunningly virtuosic figures, beautiful cantilenas, and dramatic effects that were intended to leave the audience breathless and helped to establish the violinistsÂ legendary status.
Hilary Hahn has the superior technique needed to tackle even the most difficult figures and to make this music shine. Her performances of the Paganini Concerto have been hailed by critics: "Hilary Hahn, this queen of Apollonian clarity and compelling concentration . . . In her playing the wondrously singing lyrical passages were a response to the flawless ecstasy of supreme violinistic artistry." (SÃ¼ddeutsche Zeitung)
The Paganini concerto, with its combination of wild virtuosity and fatty, gushy melody, is a favorite of audiences and violinists; fiddlers love to strut their stuff and the public can't resist anything so juicy. Hilary Hahn here throws her violinist hat into the ring with Perlman, Kogan, and Gil Shaham and comes out looking just fine. She handles the incredibly showy outer movements with flair, poise, and startling precision, and spins out the long, Italian melodies in the middle movement beautifully. Similarly, she handles the Spohr almost as if it were composed for the voice--it's an enchanting performance. Simply stunning and highly recommended. --Robert LevineSee all Editorial Reviews
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HH, viol; Swedish Radio Symph. Orch., Eiji Oue, cond.
PLETNEV, MIKHAIL. Tchaikovsky: 18 Pieces. Deutsche Grammophon. 2005. $14.21.
THE TALLIS SINGERS. [Jean] Mouton: Missa Dictes moy Toutes Voz Pensees. Gimmel. 2012. $17.99.
Here we have three first-rate classical performances by two virtuoso performers --violinist Hahn and pianist Pletnev--and one phenomenal vocal group, the Tallis Scholars. I have no negatives to raise about any of the three albums. They are all superlatively performed and recorded, with musical sensitivity and verve, and the pieces played are, though for the most part outside the mainstream, elegant and lyrical. (The Mouton recording is more: it's serenely, breathtakingly beautiful as well.)
Hahn is a phenomenon of phenomena. She has almost never in her (rapidly growing) recorded repertoire made a misstep. I would argue that the solo Bach pieces on The Essential Hilary Hahn -the chaconne from Bach's second partita for solo violin and his third partita- are not completely successful, largely because she has such a strong hand on her instrument and, in these two instances, seems not to have puled back enough to play as fluently as they require. But that's it. Everything else I've heard her play is exquisite -forceful, lyrical, strong where it needs to be strong, flexible and flowing where finesse is required.
This Paganini/Spohr album is a welcome addition to her string of albums offering two complementary but different violin concerti to the listening audience. I don't find either piece that exceptional as musical compositions but that's beside the point. They are vehicles for virtuoso in the late Romantic manner, intended to be fireworks displays. Especially is this so for the Paganini. The violin doesn't enter for a good two minutes, and the orchestral playing before that is close to pedestrian, but once the violin does enter, whooey! it's wonderful -hops, skips and jumps, slides and sudden jumps, alternating with long, melodic gliding passages. It's just engrossing, enjoyable, virtuoso music, I can't come up with enough adjectives to describe it, lovely music and Hahn does it up just like it should be done. The lengthy cadenza -I forget who wrote it --in the first movement is reason enough to buy this disc. When the violin is on stage in the Paganini concerto, you need no other reason to listen to the disc. When it's silent, it's mid-level second rate Romanticism. Fortunately, Hahn is on display almost all through the concerto, so I rate the piece highly. There's nothing wrong with Spohr's concerto but it clearly functions as encore -a good one, but encore, not a lead player on its own.
The Pletnev disc offers eighteen Morceaux by Tchaikovsky and, as conclusion, a posthumous Nocturne (No. 20 in C sharp minor) by Chopin. The juxtaposition of composers is a good one because if you listen to the Tchaikovsky pieces as I did, not having heard them before, at least half of them, and definitely the first one, could be by Chopin, so Chopinesque are they. This is lovely, lyrical music. The pieces are short enough that they avoid padding. They're mood pieces, elegantly done by one of our best present day pianists in live concert. It's a great album to play while driving and it's fun to play a piece, play it over again, and again, and then move on, listening to each piece in succession two or three times to let them soak in. Again, exceptional music exceptionally performed.
I don't know what to say about the Tallis Scholars album. It's the latest in an unbroken string of superb albums of Renaissance vocal music by this sensitive and accomplished vocal ensemble. Mouton (d. 1522) was famous for his motets. Like Josquin des Prez, he made extensive use of canon writing, pairing voices in imitation of each other, concentrating on tone and harmony even in his polyphonic writing. What one notices above all is how sweet his harmonies are, and the feeling of tranquility they promote. I'm not religious-minded at all, but calling his work "uplifting" is utterly appropriate on the basis of this recording. Anyone who has listened to the Tallis Scholars knows their strengths -absolute fidelity to the music and the composer's intentions, flawless clarity no matter how many voices are present at a particular moment in a piece, a feeling of reverence for music in general and for the particular pieces and composer being performed in any particular recording. Until now, my favorite album by them has been a recording of the works of the late Renaissance Portuguese composer Fra Manuel Cardoso (d. 1650). And of course, I love the Tallis Scholars' rendition of Thomas Tallis's multi-voice (forty separate vocal lines at one time) "Spem in Alium." I've added this fine album to the Pantheon now.
This recording marks the second time that she has rivaled, if not dethroned, a bona-fide legend. The first time, it was the solo Partitas and Sonatas of JS Bach. With that recording, Hilary at the very least tied with Heifetz for my favorite Chaconne, even though her interpretation was NOTHING like Heifetz's (I'll come back to that later).
In the case of this Paganini concerto, she has done exactly the same thing. My previous favorite was the legendary performance by Yehudi Menuhin (1934 I think). And once again, Hilary comes along, takes the tempo just a little bit slower than you might expect, and the result is incredible. Her precision, charisma, the passion she puts into this, and her technical execution, are nothing short of miraculous.
I'll be honest, when I heard the beginning of the 3rd movement (one of the most fun, accessible and enjoyable movements in the classical repertoire), I was almost immediately disappointed. The movement starts with the strings simply plucking along to the beat, pizzicato. And before Hilary played a single note, I said to myself, "it's too slow". But within 15 seconds, I had given up all hope of not LOVING this recording. During the fast virtuosic passages (and you know there's a lot of em with Paganini), you hear every single lightning-fast note with such perfect clarity, it's truly like hearing it for the first time. I listen to this and find little bits here and there that I had never noticed before, or at least I never heard them so clearly. When Menuhin played it, the super-fast parts sometimes sound like a blur, simply because of the speed. Although he was precise and technically flawless to be sure, he was just so damn fast that you couldn't possibly distinguish every individual note. But Hilary really has a knack for finding the perfect balance between tempo, technical execution, and passion/emotion. Every time I listen to this, my jaw hits the floor at certain points simply because you can hear EVERY SINGLE NOTE perfectly, no matter how fast or difficult the passage is. And I find myself thinking "How on Earth can human hands have that kind of precision?".
Menuhin may have played it faster, but Hahn treats this just like she did the D-minor Chaconne: slower than Heifetz, but for a purpose. She brings out the message and the real emotion of the piece, she lets every note really say what it has to say, even if all it's saying is "WEEEEEEE!!!!" The sound quality is stunning and definitely adds to the enjoyment of the music, the orchestra is flawless and powerful and the cymbal-crashes with the timpani feel like you're getting punched in the stomach, in a good way.
I cannot find one single negative thing to say. This is my new favorite Paganini #1.
As for the Spohr, I honestly am not very familiar with this piece. I've heard it maybe once or twice previously (almost certainly by Heifetz), but I have no distinct memories of it, so this is my first time really getting acquainted with it. To put it simply, it's a great piece of music with very different feel than the Paganini, big contrast in the overall mood. The piece itself is fairly new to me, so I don't have any prior experience to compare it to. But from what I can gather, she nails it, just like everything else I've ever heard her play. No complaints here, it's a great performance of a great concerto.
I highly recommend this album for anyone. If you're a fan of Hilary Hahn, it's a no-brainer. If you're a fan of either one of these violin concertos, do yourself a favor and get this CD, you will not be disappointed.