Higdon & Tchaikovsky: Violin Concertos (CD review)

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

For readers who missed my early review of this disc, I thought it best to repost it.

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 part 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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa