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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Meet the Staff

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.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa