What is it with Sibelius these days? We just reviewed Lisa Batiashvili's recording of the Finnish composer's daunting violin concerto, which has been performed a shocking number of times over the last couple years in these parts. Now, an Ionarts favorite performer and Baltimore's favorite daughter, violinist Hilary Hahn, has taken on the Sibelius concerto in a new recording. As further proof of her serious-mindedness, Hahn has paired it with Schoenberg's mostly unknown violin concerto, a work that we have never reviewed live and that is hardly over-recorded. In her charming liner note, Hahn relates that her first attempt to wrap her head around the Sibelius concerto was via headphones, between innings of an Orioles game, and that she had to special-order the Schoenberg score, since no music stores had it in stock.
Schoenberg / Sibelius, Violin Concertos, Hilary Hahn, Swedish RSO, Esa-Pekka Salonen
(released April 8, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7346
In the Schoenberg, Hahn's narrow, pitch-centered tone, alternately electric and honeyed, converses polyphonically with the agitated orchestra in the first movement. As one would expect, Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra deftly through the complicated, percolating score. The sound is appropriately balanced and warm, with the solo prominent but never unnaturally so. Schoenberg described the concerto, composed after he took refuge in the United States, with the words, "I am delighted to add another unplayable work to the repertoire. I want the concerto to be difficult, and I want the little finger to become longer. I can wait." Hahn has put an impressive amount of work into mastering the technical demands of this piece (including extended cadenzas), especially in the often spastic third movement, which she said rearranged her technical approach (perhaps growing her little finger). Not only that, she has rendered the piece in a way that shows it at its most attractive, almost light-filled and (post-)Romantic, still likely not palatable to every listener but certainly worth hearing.
David Salvage, Three Moments musicaux with Hilary Hahn (Sequenza 21, February 27)
Andrew Clements, Schoenberg & Sibelius: Violin Concertos (The Guardian, March 7)
Geoff Brown, Hilary Hahn: Schoenberg/Silebius (The Times, March 14)
Norman Lebrecht, Schoenberg, Sibelius: Violin Concertos (Minneapolis Star-Times, March 15)
Matthew Rye, Schoenberg, Verdi, Bach and more: Classical CDs of the week (The Telegraph, March 22)
Hahn has been playing the Sibelius concerto for a much longer time (embedded below is a video of a very young Hahn playing it in Munich), and it is good to have a recording of it. Pekka-Salonen and the SRSO help cast the first movement in a gloomy, sun-deprived atmosphere, matched by Hahn's masked, icy tone. Along with the glaciers of the slower, dreamy sections there is considerable force in the first movement, too, so substantial that it constitutes more than half of the work's total length. The second movement seethes and surges with volcanic heat, and the third movement, which has been described as a "polonaise for polar bears" (D. F. Tovey), lumbers and pops with heavy emphasis from the SRSO, on top of which Hahn's occasionally nervous violin dances and skitters. In any case, the Sibelius is available in so many versions, some of them better, faster, more daring than Hahn's: it is the Schoenberg that makes this recording so worthwhile.
Hahn writes a blog of sorts -- an online journal that she updates (sporadically) while she is on the road, which is much of the time. In her latest entry, she drops a fascinating bit of information, in relation to an extended spot she did on a Danish television show:
Sibelius Violin Concerto, Hilary Hahn, Symphonieorchester des
Bayerischen Rundfunks, Lorin Maazel (watch the rest of the concerto)
Let me just point out that it is highly, highly unusual for a TV station in any country to devote all of one show to a classical musician. I can't count how many times people working for me, asking about even a two-minute appearance, have been told by apologetic (or not so apologetic) programming directors, "We don't do classical music." This is not limited to a certain type of show. This rule prevails through hordes of mainstream shows, women's shows, music shows, late-night, early-morning, midday, afternoon, and prime-time shows, celebrity shows, personality shows, interview shows, entertainment shows, and intellectual shows.And there you have it: classical music isn't dying, it is being killed, at least in this part of the popular imagination.
Hilary Hahn will perform with the National Symphony Orchestra later this spring (May 8 to 10) -- sadly, not the Schoenberg concerto but the first Paganini concerto. We still plan to be there.