Hilary Hahn: A Portrait

by | Jun 25, 2007 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Hilary Hahn: A Portrait

Program: KORNGOLD: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; MOZART: Violin Sonata in G Major, K. 301
Performers: Hilary Hahn, violin/ Natalie Zhu, piano/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Kent Nagano
Studio: DGG DVD 00440 073 4192
Video: 16:9 enhanced; color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Extras: Live continuous performance excerpts of both works
Length: 58 minutes (documentary); 49 minutes (extras)
Rating: ****

Directed by Benedict Mirow, this documentary on violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn is an affectionate look–before and behind the concert stage–of a traveling artist; in fact Hahn estimates she is home during the concert season only two nights in seven. We begin offstage at the Berlin Philharmonie, as Hahn prepares to perform the Korngold Violin Concerto (24 March 2004). She notes its etiology as Hollywood film music, remarking that some people denigrate the genre–she played the soundtrack for the film The Village— even though few composers can master the medium’s demand for a balance of popular and classical procedures. Narrator David Kehoe adds that Hahn made her international debut in Berlin in 1995 under Lorin Maazel. Hilary is then signing autographs for fans, an activity that will fill her time in Hong Kong and in Japan, where she has learned “to return the signed programs with both hands while I bow–it’s more polite.”

Interspersed with the pure documentary is actual footage of the Korngold Concerto, Kent Nagano is in full hair plumage and conducting sans baton. He will comment near the end of the video–as does Sir Colin Davis as they record Williams’ The Lark Ascending–what lovely phrasing Hahn can apply to phrases while maintaining a basic yet flexible pulse, so necessary to give a performance aesthetic unity. Hahn leads us on a tour of the Curtis Institute, where she studied for ten years, and we see the rooms in which she worked with her mentor Brodsky, a pupil of Efrem Zimbalist. She carved the Halloween pumpkins annually. Hahn points out a photo of Heifetz, Kreisler, and Zimbalist: “Heifetz is smiling; that’s rare, since he was such a serious person,” she quips. Gary Graffman, head of Curtis, recalls Hilary as “a very serious student. Always learning, whether music or languages.” Hilary points out the ping-pong table and remarks that the Chinese musicians who play ping-pong will “whip the crap out of you.” The Curtis experience taught Hilary “not to be afraid. The audience wants to have fun, to enjoy the music. If you have a satisfying experience on stage–mainly through good preparation–then you help the unity of the performance.” Hahn talks about her relationship to Bach’s music, his innate spirituality, even playing the Chaconne from the D Minor Partita at Dresden’s Yellow Lounge, with its informality and customer eating and drinking–Hahn stipulated, however, no smoking. Her accompanist from the Curtis Institute days, since 1993, is Natalie Zhu, a pianist Hilary calls “a soft spoken person,” but who plays beautifully, as in Mozart’s G Major Sonata. At the Abbey Road Studios, Hahn is ever-aware of the Beatles’ venue, in awe of the musicians who have made their mark.

Hahn rehearses the Paganini D Major Concerto with the Hong Kong Symphony under Gunter Herbig, the cadenza by Sauret. During the cadenza, the orchestral musicians watch, spellbound. “Now, the trouble is the recording techniques are too acute,” Hahn worries. “They pick up every sound, even if my finger sticks or the bow makes an extra vibration – effects earlier equipment would have missed or ignored.” Still, Hahn likes the recording studio for its possibilities to present a pristine version of a musical conception. After the conclusion of Korngold, it’s off to Hamburg, more packing, itineraries, cushioned packing for her violin, homesickness.  An artist’s life in miniature, the DVD imparts intensity and wistfulness at once. The bonus tracks include the full Korngold, Mozart Sonata, and talks by Hahn and Zhu. [The higher visual quality of the widescreen presentation of more and more classical music videos makes the 4:3 screen releases now seem claustrophobic to me…Ed.]

— Gary Lemco

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