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CD Review

Hilary Hahn Plays 20th-Century Concertos

Hilary Hahn, violin
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Deutsche Grammophon 4777346 2008 62:54
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Milestone Schoenberg. Fine Sibelius.

I'm currently reading a book which, among other things, tries to prove where Schoenberg went wrong. Like most discussions on this topic, it fails to rise above crankiness because it confuses music with system – ironically, the charge it levels against Schoenberg. It never occurs to such folks that it might be either a failure of performance or a lack in themselves. I, for example, don't see much in bel canto opera, but I don't have enough ego (and mine's pretty vast) to attribute its perceived shortcomings to Bellini, Rossini, or Donizetti. Late at night, when no one's around, I suspect that it may just be my own fault, especially when so many people for such a long time have admired this stuff.

When I heard Craft and Baker's pioneering recording of Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, I thought as badly of Schoenberg as anyone. The work struck me as boring, pretentious, thick, and incoherent, never mind what system produced it. On the other hand, Stravinsky declared it his favorite violin concerto, even above his own. That stopped me from outright dismissal, although I still didn't care for the piece. I considered it merely something for initiates into a level I could never reach. After all, I liked the Beethoven, the Mendelssohn, and the Tchaikovsky. Could I get any more middle-brow? In all those years, I had never heard any performers of the Schoenberg other than Baker and Craft, mainly because Baker and Craft never made the piece interesting enough to make me want to pursue a better performance. After about a decade, I heard Szeryng and Kubelík, which made me realize the cluelessness of the previous account. Craft made pioneering recordings of Schoenberg, but he was indeed a pioneer. His American and British orchestras didn't have the experience of playing the music that continental orchestras had, and I've since concluded he himself has little performer's affinity for Schoenberg (he's better in Stravinsky), despite his considerable musical intellect. Still, I wasn't convinced. However, by now I recognized that this music had to be played a lot by different people before it coalesced. I finally heard Amoyal and Boulez, a performance I thought would not soon be bettered, but Hahn and Salonen have proven me wrong. Amoyal plays superbly, but Boulez, despite his trademark eerie clarity, conducts as if he's following a recipe step by step. All this is just to say that don't condemn a piece until you're sure you've heard a good performance. It's taken musicians a long time to "get" Schoenberg, just as it took a long time for musicians to "get" Bruckner and Mahler, but it has started to happen, even among second- and third-rank organizations.

When we understand a piece of music, what is it exactly that we understand? In Schoenberg's case, we can know the tone series and trace its variations throughout the concerto, just as we can analyze the thematic cells and their variations throughout Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4. We can do this through listening or through a silent examination of a score. I would contend, however, that while we certainly understand something – even something important – about the music, we don't necessarily understand how the music flows together in time. We don't necessarily know the beginning, end, or shape of phrases or the rhetorical relationship of one phrase to another. Notice that this has little to do with tonality vs. atonality. A tonal, even diatonic, work could fail (and some do) to cohere in a listener's auditory imagination. If we read contemporary accounts of Mahler's Eighth, for example – or accounts up to, say, the late Forties – we discover at least some critics had problems making sense of the second part.

Schoenberg's Violin Concerto is in three parts: the traditional moderate, slow, fast. Although its idiom derives from late Romanticism, it's not a Romantic heroic concerto. The "psychology" of the music harbors greater complexity. You'd find it difficult to sum up the mood of a particular movement. The textures are more chamber-like, rather than the solo-vs-mass of something like the Tchaikovsky or even the Korngold (which, incidentally, it predates). The concerto emphasizes delicate, shifting colors and counterpoint. Very seldom does Schoenberg unleash the full orchestra. There's a lot of "air" in this concerto, as instruments to a great extent make room for one another. Salonen and the Swedes do a fine job illuminating the textures, allowing Hahn to become prima inter pares in the chamber ensemble.

Yet Hahn and Salonen's glory consists of their ability to treat Schoenberg's concerto as music, rather than as serial music. That is, I didn't care what the row manipulations are (in this piece, Schoenberg isn't all that logically strict anyway), and I, at least, couldn't follow them without a score. Far more important to me, for example, were places like the first couple of paragraphs, where the opening ideas in the violin and in the orchestra get traded via good ol' double counterpoint. I have no idea what nifties Schoenberg has committed on his row, but the performers allow me to enjoy a lovely spin on a standard concerto ploy. Furthermore, even though it's in 4/4 time, Hahn and Salonen manage to impart to the music the lilt of a Viennese waltz. Hahn's innate lyricism brushes aside the thorns. Everything in this concerto becomes some sort of song, and that takes the highest degree of internalization of the score. When Oscar Levant asked Schoenberg who would play his concerto, Schoenberg replied, "In a hundred years, everybody." Hahn and Salonen make you believe it.

You can choose from among at least 65 violinists playing the Sibelius concerto. Hahn's point of view always interests me, but it's not necessarily what I want in this work. Her virtues are lightness, freshness, singing lyricism. For the Sibelius, I prefer somebody more intense. Hahn hears more "vulnerability" in the music than I do. Nevertheless, this allows her to make some beautiful choices, notably an opening that moves from pre-dawn to full daybreak and a finale that dances without tromping. Sibelius's first two movements (and the opening movement especially) make the piece for me. For that, Neveu, Heifetz, and Szeryng remain favorites, although I can think of other performances, like Hahn's, that offer their own insights and pleasures. Salonen and his band seem a bit darker than Hahn when they step into the spotlight, although they provide alert, sensitive support.

In all, I wouldn't buy this for the Sibelius, unless you're a particular fan of Hahn, but the Schoenberg may well stand as a landmark in recordings of his works.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.