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: