Higdon & Tchaikovsky: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Hilary Hahn, violin; Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 028947787778.

DG will release "Hilary Hahn Plays Higdon & Tchaikovsky" on September 21, and this is an early review.

When somebody writes a piece of serious music just for you, you'd do well to show your appreciation. In the case of violinist Hilary Hahn, one of her old music professors, Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, wrote and dedicated a violin concerto especially for her, and Ms. Hahn returned the favor in this world-première recording of it.

Ms. Hahn pairs the Higdon Violin Concerto with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in part to do something she's done before--compare and contrast music from two different eras--and, no doubt, to hedge her bets by giving potential buyers a popular warhorse to help sell the album. In any case, the two works make fascinating listening.

The program begins with Higdon's Violin Concerto, for which the composer won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Ms. Higdon titled the first movement "1726," which seems pretty mystifying until you understand that she gave it that title because it's the street address of the Curtis Institute of Music, where she first met Ms. Hahn. Fair enough. The movement begins with a hauntingly lithe, almost spooky, little introduction that leads to a lusher, almost Romantic melody, which in turn gives way to a lively, vibrant tune, accompanied by a good deal of percussion. That's quite a lot to cram into a single movement, but in the end the movement is more or less a traditional Allegro with modern trimmings, arresting at least in parts and ending the way it came in.

The composer patterned the slow second movement, which she titled "Chaconni," after the Baroque chaconne, a musical form based on continuous variations in a series of chords. It's a pleasant moment of repose, reminiscent of the music of English composer Frederick Delius in its sweetly flowing rhythms.

The final movement, titled "Fly Forward," is the easiest to figure out. Ms. Higdon is urging her former pupil to even greater heights of musical interpretation and exploration. It's the most-ambitious part of the Concerto, and Ms. Hahn handles it with her usual virtuosity.

I wasn't entirely sure how Ms. Hahn would handle the rather brawny, muscular Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, however. Not that I should have worried, as she is fully capable of meeting any challenge, the Tchaikovsky being no different from any other. While her reading is a tad disappointing in overall bravura, it is a thoughtful one. For instance, you might find her performance more sensitive than that of some of her rivals. Indeed, in the familiar opening movement she and maestro Vasily Petrenko seem determined not to leave an audience breathless with excitement but, instead, captivated by flavor and atmosphere. Then they evoke an appropriate degree of Russian melancholy in the Andante and close the show with a big, spirited Finale, as though they were saving all their energy for the last rounds. All's well that ends well.

DG's sound is warm and full, not always as transparent as it could be during full orchestral segments but serving the soloist and individual instruments well enough. The engineers at DG always do up wide dynamics well, too, and this is no exception. Still, the overall focus is slightly soft and one dimensional, with the bass somewhat light. Fortunately, the abundance of delicate, tinkly sounds in the Hidgon piece come through nicely, and they are perhaps the highlight of the disc's sonics.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. great review! it's always a treat to get knowledgeable opinions from serious listeners among the crush of one dimensional opinions from Ms. Hahn's effusive fans (of which I suppose I am also one).


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa