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Pauline Lerner

Hilary Hahn’s CD of Violin Concertos by Schoenberg and Sibelius

May 20, 2008 at 9:32 AM

I bought a copy of Hilary Hahn’s CD of Violin Concertos by Schoenberg and Sibelius as soon as it came out and listened to it over and over and over. I’d like to share my personal, emotional reactions to it. This is not intended to be the kind of critical review that a music critic might write for a newspaper. It’s strictly my own feelings.

Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto is seldom played or recorded, and there’s got to be a reason why. It is technically extremely difficult to play. Heifetz once looked at the score and said that it would be impossible to play unless the violinist’s left hand had six fingers. Hilary Hahn managed it with only five fingers on her left hand. She said that she worked a long time on figuring out the fingering. In many places, there was only one fingering that would work. She played everything so well that none of it sounded like hard work. She maintained her characteristic sweetness of tone as an element of the many, varied emotions she portrayed.

Like many people, I was prejudiced against Schoenberg and his twelve tone system. I expected to hear cacophony, but I was surprised. My reaction to the first movement was that it sounded -- boring. There was nothing in the music that hung onto me. The second movement was a little more interesting. In some parts, it sounded like playful scampering. There were also some interesting, short, rhythm motifs. I was disappointed that they were not repeated or embellished. The third movement was quite different, and I liked it better than the other two. It was interesting and lively. I heard it as a conversation between the violin and the orchestra. Sometimes it sounded quite polished and civilized. At other times, the orchestra sounded as if it were yelling or growling. Hilary Hahn’s solos sounded clean and clear. They provided a welcome respite from the sometimes chaotic sound of the orchestra.

I love the Sibelius Concerto, especially the first movement. I discussed some of my reactions to this concerto in an earlier blog entry (Feb. 21, 2008). I liked Joshua Bell’s performance better than all the others I could find on In contrast to the other violinists, who sounded overly sweet, Josh started with a taut note with narrow vibrato, which set the tone for the whole piece. Hilary Hahn’s recording, like Joshua Bell’s, starts with a taut feeling, but her tautness had just a bit of her characteristic sweetness in it. Even when she plays dark, gloomy music, I can detect her very own kind of sweetness, like the silver lining to a storm cloud. I sensed a vulnerable quality to the sweetness here. This movement is full of rapid mood changes, executed beautifully by Hilary Hahn and the orchestra. The emotional rollercoaster effect kept me hanging on, feeling the mood of the movement and wondering what would come next. The last movement had a lot of mood changes, but they seemed quicker and more complex than the earlier ones. There was a taut quality reminiscent of the beginning of the first movement, but it was more complex emotionally. It was full of tension, restraint, and power. I had a strong sense of progress towards a goal. The progress had some switchbacks and sidetracks, but that only made the attainment of the goal sweeter.

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