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Hilary Hahn Performs Paganini Concerto

Hilary Hahn, violinist
Hilary Hahn, violinist
As arguably the most outstanding American violinist of her young generation -- with Julia Fischer holding the European title -- Hilary Hahn’s Thursday evening performance with the National Symphony Orchestra exemplified her unparalleled standards of perfection in performance. Verdi’s Overture to I vespri siciliani provided a suitable introduction the violin pyrotechnics show to follow, with the portamenti of the cello section, perhaps the strongest string section of the NSO, sounding gorgeous.

One might expect more than a show of soloistic virtuosity from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 given the composer’s thin orchestral writing, but one would be wrong. (Paganini's personal quartet of Stradiviari instruments were nearby last fall.) Hahn exploited Paganini’s weaknesses in order to direct all attention to her soaring tone, continuously far above the orchestra. I had incorrectly written off Hahn’s enormously forward tone in her recent CD of concertos (reviewed by Charles here and by Anne Midgette at the Post) as artificially enhanced; now I stand corrected.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, The NSO's Wild Wonderland (Washington Post, May 9)
Back to the Paganini, Hahn made each note have a purpose and is one of the only NSO violin soloists this season not to fudge through double and triple stops and other technical challenges in terms of intonation. The sweet second movement Adagio expressivo was augmented by Hahn’s wide and fast vibrato. The first movement (Allegro maestoso) was almost not quite enough Maestoso for Hahn to manage; the more relaxed tempo of the third-movement Rondo: Allegro spirituoso was more pleasing. Blistering runs, chords, multiple-stop glissandi, harmonics, and runs of harmonics were all handled in a cool, masterful way in the cadenza, where she at times accompanied herself with chords dashed between florid runs. Hahn’s sleepy encore, a soupy sarabande from Bach's second partita, was a real let-down; however, one can understand why she chose to contrast the Paganini with something mellow (perhaps to clear the cholesterol from her veins).

Hila Plitmann, soprano
Hila Plitmann, soprano
The program ended with David Del Tredici’s Final Alice (1976), an extended work for large orchestra and amplified soprano (Hila Plitmann) speaking and singing the “final” chapters of Alice in Wonderland. This tonal work featuring unusual orchestration was undermined by the vocalist's microphone, which discouraged close listening. Feedback through the sound system seemingly affected Plitmann’s pitch, especially when the engineers adjusted the volume to match orchestral swells. Perhaps they could have turned the microphone on only during Plitmann’s speaking parts? Otherwise, Plitmann could likely have held her own.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night (May 9 and 10, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Rickytime said...

Hi, Hahn's encore was from Ysaye's Sonata #2, not Bach. Great blog!

Michael Lodico said...

rickytime: I was there Thursday evening -- and you?