It was with some trepidation that I read in Hilary Hahn’s album notes to her new album: “[There]… is a side of this music which can get lost when one subverts its emotional potential in favor of flashiness. I tried coming to the Paganini from a melodic perspective: instead of making the technical sections the central focus of the piece, tying them together with the melodic sections. I try to use virtuosity as ornamentation in the context of a very lyrical, vocal work. In other words, the technique becomes of secondary importance.” “Uh oh,” I could hear myself saying. “Here we go again.” She’s going to reverse the foreground and background, the importance of the long line and the importance of the ornamental trills. Danger.
Fearful as I was, I managed to sit down with my best headphone rig one night and play it again and again, which would have registered great uxorial complaint had I played it repetitively on my big rig. And I was shocked – shocked I say – to find there was music going on in this CD: not just music, but music of the highest order and with deep honor and respect for the composer. Hilary Hahn had pulled it off, just as she had envisioned she could. Hats off to Hilary!!
What she has done is, largely, slowed things down, especially the flashy things. Now they seem more deliberate, more nearly profound. Hahn’s undeniably sweet tone and fleet technique carry this approach through the entire Paganini concerto and she gives us a fresh look, especially at the slow second movement. This is in itself ironic. I don’t know how the Paganini was played before the moderns, but it seems to me that a generation or two of violinists (the Russian Viktor Tretyakov’s 1967 reading, and the American Eugene Fodor’s 1976 reading representing them in my LP case) played the piece with great rapidity, which emphasized the ornament over the long-line. From the report in my Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (ed. 1935), Paganini “filled his music with such novel technical difficulties that he was himself compelled to study certain passages with assiduity.” He was so secretive about his technical innovations that most of his mature works were not published in his lifetime. I can imagine the older Paganini still priding himself on his virtuoso abilities, he who was alleged to have sold his soul to the Devil in return for his extraordinary skills. Still, even were it so, it would take a Hilary Hahn to do the proper research and recognize the musical worth of the piece that the listening public has recognized for nearly the past 200 years, even if for the wrong reasons.
The term belle canto seems out of context here, but we are again told in Grove’s that at the age of nine or ten Paganini “… the boy made the acquaintance of Francecesco Gnecco, a distinguished operatic composer of the day, to whom he was indebted for much valuable advice.” Which is to say operatic arias, especially the belle canto style, were probably an influence on the young Paganini; and while there are ornaments in his work, as in Rossini arias … they needn’t be taken as rapidly as humanly possible. To take the whole concerto more slowly allows the listener to catch the lyricism of the piece. Confusing the ornament for the essence of the musical energy of the Paganini Concerto, is analogous to confusing its ornamental adornments for the Christmas tree. The two work best when complementing each other, even if Paganini didn’t play it that way. This recording may well mark Hilary Hahn’s debut as a mature artist (at 25), rather than as a prodigy, as she achieves the blend of lyricism and ornament that show this concerto to best advantage. To my taste, she nails it. A case might be made that we, with nearly the entire history of Western music recorded since the advent of the LP, have a more sophisticated ear than the listening public of the early 19th century; that Hilary Hahn might be 200 years ahead of Paganini in that regard; but I’ll not argue that. Her performance argues it for her, oscillating between the lyrical and the pyrotechnical in such a well-conceived and graceful fashion.
The other work, the shorter Violin Concerto No. 8 in A minor, op. 47, by Louis Spohr, is often used as a student work to test whether or not the student’s technique is up to speed on the ornaments and trills that Spohr wrote in. According to my Grove’s, Spohr heard Paganini play at Cassel in 1828, and they went to dinner where the serious Spohr was put off by Paganini’s cavalier (some say charlatan-like) approach to life and music. Spohr’s detractors said that Spohr’s compositions were too mechanical and repetitive: his champions said all that was noble about music could be found in Spohr’s works. Whether or not Spohr was influenced by Paganini is moot. They were each great violinists and important composers for the violin.
The Spohr Concerto is another piece that has had students trying to beat the speed record in terms of playing time, trying to play it ever faster, ever cleaner. The result is another piece in the violin repertoire traditionally played as flashily as could be mustered. And, again, Hilary Hahn has taken it upon herself to slow down the pace in order to mine the vein of lyric riches that hides within.
And again, it is the slow 2nd movement that really brings forward the burnished gold in the tone she is able to achieve. Playing the concerto as if she owned it, as if she had performed it often enough as a student to know all the nooks and crannies where Spohr had written in the goodies, technique and speed become secondary. Hilary knows she could, if she chose, knock the piece on its ear in record time. She has all the moves, the parallel thirds, the other double stops, the arpeggios, the glissandi, the right hand bowing tricks, the left hand hammering on and pulling off; etc. You name it: she’s got it. If she chooses to play the piece slower and with more feeling she is again searching for the just right combination of long line and ornament that can show this Spohr Concerto to best advantage. Does she nail it? I don’t have other recordings of this work, so I can’t say. I will say Hilary Hahn gives us a really compelling reading of the Spohr, one that is flawless in execution. Will you agree with her taste? I do. She’s made a believer of me.
That said, I give a hearty thumbs up to this recording. If you like the Paganini, and I do as music qua music, it alone is worth the price of admission. The Spohr is an important piece, and deserves more attention. Hilary Hahn is proving to be a musical personality in her own right. She deserves all the attention she gets.
— Max Dudious