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CD Review

Hilary Hahn

Two Bs or Not Two Bs

Hilary Hahn, violin
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
Sony SK60584 74:36
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Summary for the Busy Executive: You won't believe your ears.

With his violin concerto, Beethoven pulled off a major miracle: possibly the most noble, most mature of all concerti (not just for violin, either) without writing a whole lot of notes. The violin says hardly anything (compared to, say, the Mendelssohn and the Tchaikovsky, both favorites of mine) and yet expresses "thoughts too deep for words." Whereas most concerti ask for a hero, this one asks for a soloist as sage. When I imagine, on the basis of image alone, performances of this work, I picture a white-haired musician with years of experience and wisdom: Huberman, Milstein, Szeryng, Oistrakh, Suk, Szigeti. One might easily come up with many good performances, but not all that many great ones. Off the top of my head, I can think of several wonderful accounts of the Tchaikovsky, but when I get to Beethoven, I become rather picky.

The performances I think above the common run include Huberman/Szell, Milstein/Steinberg, Haendel/Kubelík, Neveu/Rosbaud, and Heifetz/Munch. For this work, the orchestra and conductor count just as much as the violinist – or rather, the collaboration, the sense of ensemble, count for more than star-power flash. Francescatti/Walter on paper should have made the list, but the last movement plods. Many people don't care for the Heifetz, but I count it one of my top two. I don't normally think of Heifetz as a great Beethoven player either, but for me he really locks in on the work without subjecting it to his usual super-glam treatment. Mutter and Karajan are okay, but then I find Karajan's Old Smoothie approach to Beethoven trivializes the music. I might as well take the opportunity to mention that many of my favorite Beethoven performances come from musicians not normally associated with the composer: Ormandy's superb accompaniment to Serkin in the Piano Concerto #4, Stokowski's profound Ninth, Heifetz's violin concerto and "Kreutzer" sonata, for example.

Against my expectations, Hilary Hahn breaks into elite company – "against expectations," only because she's so young. I admit it's a stupid prejudice. After all, her career has been characterized by a musical maturity and an emotional balance way beyond her years. At sixteen, she was a better musician than Midori is now, and Midori has improved tremendously (indeed, she's grown up). I know nothing about string technique and normally I don't even like the sound of a violin (it squeaks). I think it significant that Hahn reduces other violin virtuosi to mere fans like me and that I want to hear only more of her work.

Hahn's musical personality unites two contrary impulses: youthful ardor and a patrician elegance. Both serve her very well indeed here. The elegance of her musicianship contributes to one's acceptance that she has the musical chops for the piece. The ardor brings an almost heartbreaking warmth to this most lyrical of violin concerti. Her intonation strikes me as not only perfect, but exciting all by itself, and I prefer her tone to even Perlman's, at least for this work. But again, Beethoven demands not merely a star, but a "first among equals." The orchestra builds as much of the concerto as the soloist does. The unanimity of interpretation and the same general level of musicianship from conductor, soloist, and players, make this recording special. Zinman and Baltimore may not have the reputation of Barenboim and the Chicago, but they show better Beethoven chops. I hear the opening tutti as emblematic of the whole. The playing is clean, the short strokes of the violins give off sparks, the builds to climax and the backing away absolutely superb, especially at the first major cadence out of which the soloist rises, almost out of nowhere. The loud parts aren't as loud as in some performances, but I don't find that sort of dynamic scale suits this piece. Zinman, for the most part, keeps the lid on and thus adds to the excitement. When the dynamic reaches a true forte, we feel it as great power, free of bombast. The integration of orchestra and soloist comes off as well in this account as anywhere, and the reading often seems like chamber music on a slightly larger scale. The quiet moments, if anything, thrill more than the big ones. Those of you who want the Big Bow-wow should look elsewhere.

From a technical standpoint, the second movement stands as a tour-de-force, despite its serenity and apparent simplicity. It's nothing less than a symphonic theme and variations, but the theme resists symphonic treatment. The harmony doesn't lead anywhere new, and as we know, rhetorical movement and harmonic movement are closely related in classical symphonic structures. Harmonically, it's as if a weight lifter jerked 500 pounds and put it down in exactly the same spot. Yet the piece undoubtedly takes us on a journey, just not through harmony, but through melody, by gorgeous extensions to the relatively long theme by the soloist. Both Hahn and Zinman lead us on into the fields of the blest, or at any rate, into the finale, which represents another trouble spot in many interpretations. There's the vexing question of how fast it should go. To me, this probably has more to do with maintaining a certain character, than a specific tempo. The finale is, above all, a dance, an idealization of classical pastoralism. Hahn and Zinman maintain lightness without becoming lightweight. And there's a Sprung – a swing to it. For me, the movement creates an almost sacred space, a healthy joy made audible. The cadenza (Hahn, I believe, bases hers on Kreisler's rather than, say, on Joachim's), rather than merely marking time – as in so many performances – while the soloist struts his or her modest stuff, actually makes a musical point. My only nitpick of the entire concerto is the very end, which seems abrupt, as if the performers missed the preparation for it. Nevertheless, a tremendous reading.

I suppose the big question on many listener's minds would be what in the blue-eyed world Bernstein's Serenade is doing in the exalted company of the Beethoven. Some of the reader comments at are actually quite funny in the degree of their outrage. Since any other coupling would let me down, including Beethoven's own Romances and the Brahms, why not the Bernstein? Kudos to Hahn for recording this. Again, the approach sings more than it muscles and thus contrasts with the soloists who recorded with Bernstein himself: Stern (the dedicatee, Sony 60558; dreadful sound, but a fiery performance), Francescatti (Sony 60559), and Kremer (DG 445245; with the symphonies, 445185). Hahn does very well indeed. However, the Baltimore musicians simply don't meet her technically. They play far more raggedly than in the Beethoven. Of course, no one convinced you about the brilliance of Bernstein's music more than Bernstein himself. For me, the best recording of the Serenade remains Bernstein and Kremer. Bernstein wrote the work "after Plato's Symposium," but you don't have to read Plato to get the musical jolt the piece delivers. As it turns out, I have read the Symposium, and whatever connections Bernstein saw between Plato and the music have simply passed me by. Nevertheless, this is one of Bernstein's best – inspired and tightly written, with none of the emotional inflation or theatrical bombast that mars some of his other works. The instrumentation shows a very keen orchestral thinker: strings, harp, and what sounds like a battalion of percussion, although I'd bet that even there far fewer players bang away than what meets the ear. Furthermore, it always amazes me how much Bernstein could steal from other composers (Serenade owes a hell of lot to Stravinsky's violin concerto and, in the "Aristophanes" movement, to Prokofieff) and still keep so pronounced an individual voice. Yes, you hear Stravinsky, but only by the way. The piece shouts "Bernstein" from the opening bars. I have no idea how he did it. What strikes me even more this time around in my listening is how often Bernstein recycled his ideas and yet varied them just enough. Ideas in the Serenade will reappear in the third symphony, for example.

Overall, the performance is quite fine, without edging into the unbelievably wonderful. Zinman has the work firmly within his interpretive sights, but, as I've said, the playing just isn't sharp enough. Hahn, on the other hand, seems always to have within herself the highest level. Her solo in the opening fugato sets you up for a transcendence that never happens, basically because the orchestra doesn't match her as well as it does in the Beethoven, always in the faster, jazzier sections. I should mention, however, that the orchestra does very well in the slower parts and manages to achieve her intensity, particularly in the "Agathon" section, the heart of the work. In the section's great culmination, a single powerful stroke from the orchestra, the partnership between soloist and orchestra reaches the level of the Beethoven, with the soloist's cadenza seeming to come out of that orchestral chord. The final presto measures will leave you breathless. But Hahn carries too much of the load throughout. Very likely, a better performance comes down to a simple matter of greater player familiarity with the piece.

The sound aims for "natural" balance between soloist and orchestra. It's neither too bright nor too heavy. Don't get the CD for the Bernstein, but the Beethoven, as far as I'm concerned, ranks as a must-have.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz