Brahms, Stravinsky: Violin Concertos

Hilary Hahn / Neville Marriner

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Brahms, Stravinsky: Violin Concertos Review

by Blair Sanderson

One of the most technically accomplished young musicians, Hilary Hahn is also ambitious. Performing Johannes Brahms' violin concerto at age 21 is a serious-minded choice, since this piece has acquired a reputation for being appropriate for mature artists. Hahn removes that dubious impediment by playing it on her own terms, with new ears, and by taking no heed of pretensions imposed on this masterpiece. All the fire and yearning are here, the chief characteristics of Brahmsian romanticism. However, Hahn has the intelligence and sensibility to keep her interpretation within classical bounds. Although she pushes the envelope just once -- her drawn-out cadenza in the first movement seems a little self-indulgent -- she maintains a high degree of control throughout. Her second-movement entrance, following the long oboe solo, is seraphic, perhaps the concerto’s most moving passage. The finale is a pure delight, Hahn’s shining moment as a virtuoso. Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields provide a radiant accompaniment to support Hahn’s glorious tone. If balance is the rule here, then they are all playing from the same score. The sound of this performance is terrific, and the violin’s central placement is natural and uncontrived. Igor Stravinsky's Violin Concerto is notorious for its demands on the soloist, who must grab awkward quadruple stops, octaves, and harmonics, yet make them seem effortless. This piece is well-suited to Hahn’s skills, and still more to her classical instincts, since it is never expressively overwrought. It takes a considerable intellect to grasp the complexities entailed in the music’s quirky changes and to make them cohere. Hahn has given a unified interpretation, even when the music seems to resist her by denying expectations at every turn. The work’s wry humor never becomes sarcasm, though the proceedings get fairly heated in the first movement, where Hahn is most focused. She does the best she can with the enigmatic material of the second movement, which disconnectedly meanders between painful reflection and ironic commentary. The elegiac third-movement aria is poignant, yet austere, and challenges Hahn to convey emotion with detachment. The fast finale employs the most virtuosic passagework and displays the rhythmic dynamism that never failed Stravinsky. Hahn pulls it all off with great panache. Sound reproduction is excellent here, marred only by someone’s audible exertions.

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