Elgar: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending. Hillary Hahn, violin; Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra. DG B00003026-02.

I have to admit that it’s hard for me to remain attentive through music I don’t particularly enjoy. The Elgar Violin Concerto has been popular among the public for nearly a century, so there’s no doubting its quality, but I have never found it entirely compelling, especially not the first movement, which seems to me to drift from one place to another. There is a sweet second movement, true, and things do finally come together in the last movement, but it seems a long time coming.

Anyway, this is meant as no disrespect to Ms. Hahn’s violin playing, for which I have the utmost respect and admiration. I just don’t know that there is a lot she can do, even with her beautiful performance of the second movement, with something that other artists haven’t done better before her. The “better” in this case would be Zukerman’s recording (Sony), Menuhin’s (EMI), Perlman’s (DG), and, especially, either of Nigel Kennedy’s (EMI) recordings, in which Kennedy’s violin almost literally “sings” through the music. It is Kennedy’s greater expressive quality that almost (I say “almost”) makes me appreciate the work for the intimate, biographical outpouring of personal spirit it contains. Nevertheless, Ms. Hahn gives it her all, and while her tempos may seem a bit hurried in places and she misses some of the darker aspects of the score, she does convey much of the composer’s soul, as well, perhaps, of her own. Without a doubt, if you love the music, you’ll love Ms. Hahn’s way with it, especially with the late Sir Colin Davis leading the LSO in sympathetic support.

As a companion work with the Concerto we find Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” a piece for which I have a most heartfelt affection. It is one of the loveliest pieces of music ever written, and one of the staples of the repertoire for calming the frayed nerves of the weary traveler at the end of a long day. Ms. Hahn conveys the beauty of the lark’s upward flight with dignity and compassion, but, like the Elgar, it didn’t quite touch me the way another artist’s does, Hugh Bean’s celebrated performance with Sir Adrian Boult and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI, 1967).

In all, I’d say if you’re looking for this particular coupling on a single disc, or if you’ve got a yearning to hear Elgar’s violin piece for the first time, Ms. Hahn’s recording is one to consider. There is no questioning her artistry.

As to the audio quality, time was when I thought DG’s sound was too hard, bright, and edgy, but with this release it appears their sound is a little too warm and smooth. Maybe I’m just hard to please. A quick comparison of both the EMI discs mentioned above with this DG release makes the point. The EMI recordings have greater transparency, greater dynamic impact, and greater depth to the stereo image. No one is likely to find DG’s sound lacking, mind you, except dedicated audiophiles, who will probably not care for the sound of the EMI’s, either, so it may be a moot point.

A final note on the packaging: If you count the back cover picture of Ms. Hahn, the inside cover picture, the outside booklet cover, the back booklet cover, and the seven additional pictures of the artist inside the booklet, you will find eleven pictures of her in all. Now, I don’t deny she is a lovely lady and pleasant to look at, but it does seem like overkill, a certain waste of space that might otherwise have gone to more informational text about the composers, the artists, or the works involved. Oh, well; I suppose marketing is marketing.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa