Arnold Schoenberg. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Jean Sibelius. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Hilary Hahn, Violin. Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Cond. Esa-Pekka Salonen
Deutsche Grammophon B0010858-02 2008 TT: 62:54
If you go to ArkivMusic.com for this recording and read the
recommendation by David Hurwitz written for ClassicsToday.com, you can
read that Schoenberg's 'Violin Concerto is notorious for standing among
the ugliest pieces of music ever conceived by the human mind...'
This comment sent me to Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective,
which preserves some of the 1940 Philadelphia Record review of the work's
premiere, written by Edwin H. Schloss, who called it 'the most cacophonous
world premiere ever heard here...' along with the kind of specific
analogies that fill the Lexicon, including some aspersions on the Chinese
Although there are some pieces of music I have found repellent, this
is not one of them and it has never occurred to me to call any piece
of music ugly, though I suppose I could come up with one if I tried.
The beautiful way Hahn plays this piece would take it out of contention
for me in such an exercise. I would not be inclined to say that the
work is 'beautiful' throughout. (Some of it is.) Its composer probably
would not have been inclined to say that either. In saying that 'there's
a lot of brilliant and (yes) expressive invention going on' in it, Hurwitz
comes much closer to the nature of this important work.
Well before the First World War Schoenberg 'adopted the tenets of
Expressionism,' as Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians puts
it. For Expressionism, in the words of George L. Mosse's The Culture of
Western Europe, 'the usual forms of beauty and ugliness were irrelevant;
what mattered was the spontaneity of expression.' Although Schoenberg's
composed his twelve tone Violin Concerto well past the usual period into
which the Expressionist movement is placed, I am not sure that Schoenberg
ever entirely abandoned the spirit of Expressionism.
The expressiveness in this work ranges from the pleasant to the harsh,
from bracing to edgy. The music flows, if typically in short phrases,
and strong dissonance is only occasional. Hahn finds in the work 'grace,
wit, lyricism, romanticism and drama' having 'an impact that is almost
visual - not surprising for a composer who was also a painter.' In an
interview (www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/200710/7691/) Hahn responds to
a question from Laurie Niles, ' Is it a piece that's built on tone rows?
' with 'I don't care. I really don't look at things from that perspective.
It doesn't matter how a melody is constructed, it's still a melody.' And
she would have delighted Schoenberg with her conviction that children
at least could learn to hum tone rows.
In this performance Hahn's tone is full, her phrasing assured. The
soloist and the orchestra play well together, and the recording is
excellent. If you are among the many resistant to atonal music but
are willing to give this a try, you might begin with the slow movement,
the Andante grazioso. (Hurwitz suggests the finale.) Oh, yes, for all
Schienberg's formal innovations, this work is in the traditional three
movements, fast, slow and fast.
It is universally agreed that the Schoenberg Violin Concerto is
extremely difficult to play. Heifetz gave it up as impossible, saying
he would need a six- fingered hand. Hahn says that she 'had to train
my hands to adopt positions completely new to me,' and that it took her
two years to be able to play the work comfortably up to 'the oft-ignored
tempi printed in the score.' This from the Hahn who told me after her
recent Milwaukee appearance that she expected to learn the not yet
finished Higdon concerto 'in the usual time' and that learning the
notes generally represents the easy part of developing a performance.
For orchestras to learn this work, Hahn says, it requires six hours of
rehearsal. Once mastered, this work proved, in the 21st century, to be
'a hit. Orchestras and conductors brought the music to life. Audiences
jumped to their feet,' she reports.
Given my own tastes, I doubt that the Schoenberg will ever be among
my favorite violin concertos. THE SIBELIUS I have loved all my life,
though, and if I were forced to select one concerto for a Siberian exile,
it might well be this one. Hahn says that it took her years to make
sense of it, formally, but that was never the slightest concern of mine.
I find it both gorgeous and exciting and have never tired of it. The
version of it that I bonded with was David Oistrakh's with Sixten Ehrling
and the Stockholm Festival Orchestra on an early Angel mono record, and
I still admire this performance. There is a nice little bounce at one
point that I haven't heard in any other performance and Oistrakh did not
mind leaning into his strings to produce an expressive yawp at points.
Perhaps the closest I have heard to the intensity of this old recording,
especially in the first movement, was Cho-Liang Lin with exactly the
partners Hahn has twenty years later: Salonen and the Swedish Radio
Symphony Orchestra - recorded in the same hall. This is not to suggest
that Hahn does not also have plenty of intensity, but her aim was to
emphasize lyricism. Other recordings I know include one with Francescati
with Bernstein and the NY Philhaarmonic, by far the fastest (in all
movements) I've heard; I don't care for it. Another is with Leonidas
Kavakos with Vanska and the Lahti Symphony; they have by far the slowest
Adagio. Hahn's is one of the best and its sound is exemplary.
I recommend this recording.
Copyright 2008 by R. James Tobin
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