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Friday, October 1, 2010

Get Your Hahn On

Have we discussed the genius of Hilary Hahn's programming yet? Probably, right? But lately she does this thing where she puts together one household-name violin concerto with a concerto nobody ever plays: Paganini/Spohr, Sibelius/Schoenberg, and now the Tchaikovsky concerto paired with a concerto written personally for Hahn by Jennifer Higdon. This is great because it helps connoisseurs (snobs) like you and me from letting, say, yet another disc of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concerti from dropping into the vast ocean of Tchaik/Sibelius pairings, and because let's face it America's classical radio–loving grandmothers are about as likely to demand the Schoenberg/Higdon pairing they heard about on NPR as they are to pose for a knifethrower.

So depending on who you are, you're likely to consider one of these courses your Vegetables and one of them your Dessert, and if you're a regular reader of this blog, I'm going to guess that it's not the Dead White Male. But I have a very… I have a very intimate personal relationship with a specific recording (Heifetz) of this specific concerto, which I'd probably better not get into here. I'll defend this piece with knives, if I have to, is what I am saying. I really feel, without entirely rational justification, that this is one of the greatest concerti ever written for any instrument, in the history of the form. It manages not to fall into that Concerto Trap, where the first movement is a SERIOUS ESSAY that goes on about ten minutes beyond the point where it starts to become an excruciating bore, and the third movement is a kicky little bagatelle, and that or the second-movement aria is the only thing I actually want to listen to. The first movement of this Tchaik is pure musical ecstasy! The second movement is also gorgeous! The third movement is total gravy!

Anyway, the point is: there's no filler on this disc.

Hilary Hahn's Tchaikovsky is, first of all, meticulous. Maybe even too meticulous? During her entrance, each one of those little black notes is so carefully laid down you could probably transcribe them by ear. It's an arresting effect, but surely the character of those opening bars is supposed to be a bit more extemporaneous. Heifetz is unafraid to make the whole runs sound like big blurry smears of sound, rather than discreet little points, and by doing actually so makes the big picture clearer.

But Hahn's clarity is pretty awesome. It reminds me of what my viola teacher used to say, that when she was a student they would listen to Heifetz (that name again!) 78s at the wrong speed in order to hear if it was true he used vibrato on each and every 16th note. Hahn isn't an "old-fashioned" player as in "sentimental," but a quick, narrow vibrato seems to run through every note of hers as well, every line taut and electric like high-tension wire. She's got a terrifically powerful left hand, and she wants you to know it—every note's ringing and bright and full of life.

But you know who else is great here is Vassily Petrenko, who along with Hahn somehow makes the Tchaikovsky concerto sound more Tchaikovskian than any interpreter I've ever heard. The slow movement sounds like the Tchaikovsky of the operas, with a folksong's combination of heavy pathos and steady forward motion; the last movement sounds like the Tchaikovsky of the ballets, full of flying leaps and fairy magic and shit; the wind soloists of the Royal Liverpool Phil give pleasingly tart, rustic solos throughout the piece.

So while this isn't my desert island recording of the Tchaikovsky, it ought to please fans of the composer as well as fans of virtuoso fiddling in general—but even so, I would hesitate to claim that the Tchaik is the A-side here, and the Higdon the B-side, and not just because the Higdon comes first in play order.

Really, I'm not sure why I've been so disinclined to seek out the music of Jennifer Higdon in the past. I must have heard some piece of hers that didn't strike me once, and then when her name just kept coming up with regard to this prize or that commission, I said to myself, oh, she's one of THOSE composers, YOU KNOW THE ONES, who's middle-of-the-road enough to win all the prizes and get all the commissions, but, ugh, people, don't be like me. Don't take that attitude about music, ESPECIALLY music you don't actually know. That's the moral of this story, because I finally sat down and listened to this piece and I assure you that it is Quite Good.

The first movement seduced me immediately with its violin concerto-ness. (Are there enough tautologies in this review yet? Tchaikovsky that sounds like Tchaikovsky, and a violin concerto that sounds like a violin concerto…) The pitch materials, the actual music-stuff, are pretty engaging, and just as importantly, it's a fine showcase for the soloist. But it's the gestural language that hooked my ear, and that's what I want in a concerto dammit is HOOKS. In the small picture, it's the physicality of Higdon's writing for the instrument, the echoes of the Hahn's harmonics in the percussion, and the back-and-forth between Hahn and orchestral soli; in the big picture, it's the way all of the material returns just when you'd have wanted it to, if only you'd known to ask.

The second movement is called "Chaconni," which I'm pretty sure is not a word, but which I guess describes the way the piece spins out over a ground—not that my ears have enough brains between them to pick out how the technique is used in this incredibly elaborate movement. There's a real pleasure, anyway, in the way Higdon intertwines all the competing lines, and the last movement, like Tchaikovsky's, is a stomper.

I actually cannot imagine that this piece will not enter the American repertory—it's just too much fun—and Hahn's Tchaikovsky is a strong enough contender to be measured against the classic recordings. Everybody should probably check this disc out—and violin buffs, actually, must.

1 comment:

MWnyc said...

Danny, have you heard Jennifer's Concerto for Orchestra? It rocks.

And her piece blue cathedral, while it doesn't rock (it's not that kind of piece), is beautiful.