Brahms; Stravinsky Concertos for Violin and Orchestra
Many of the most powerful readings of the Brahms‚ that most demanding of violin concertos‚ have been made by women virtuosos‚ often at the beginning of their careers. I cite just a few above‚ and Hilary Hahn in this her fourth disc for Sony Classical adds another formidable version to the list. Her very first entry establishes her total command‚ coupled with a purity and precision which make for a magnetic reading from first to last.
As Hahn explains in her own revealing insertnote‚ this is a work that has fascinated her since she heard it at the age of seven‚ when‚ as she recalls‚ her view of the soloist was completely blocked by a tall woman in front of her. She also explains her personal decision to have the Stravinsky as an unexpected coupling‚ a work which‚ as she sees it‚ for all its fundamental contrast of idiom‚ can be related to its composer’s career very much as Brahms’s can in his. In any case it makes a unique and provocative coupling‚ particularly when Hahn’s reading of that later work is even more distinctive than that of the Brahms.
That longestablished love of the Brahms Concerto makes for a sense of spontaneity in a seamless drawing together of the many contrasted thematic motifs‚ sensitively matched by the full and incisive playing of the Academy under Sir Neville Marriner. In the first movement the balance of the violin strikes me as ideal‚ allowing plenty of bite in the bravura passages of doublestopping‚ but equally allowing a breathtaking pianissimo in the mysterious‚ meditative bars just before the final bravura passage of the exposition section (track 1‚ 7'48").
It then comes as something of a surprise when in the slow movement‚ after the long oboe solo‚ Hahn’s first entry is so clear and positive at a healthy mezzo forte instead of the marked piano‚ dolce (‘softly and sweetly’). It is only in part due to her reading‚ for the balance between soloist and orchestra is modified‚ with the violin noticeably closer. I can only assume that that discrepancy is the result of recording the last two movements on a different occasion‚ but plainly the two halves of the concerto should have been better coordinated. As it is‚ the secondhalf balance is closer to what one expects of a Sony recording‚ with Hahn’s urgent reading of the finale given extra impact by the placing of the solo instrument.
The opening of the Stravinsky is also the more striking in its power because of the close balance of the violin intensifying the impact of the very fast tempo adopted by Hahn. Her playing is phenomenal in its precision‚ but anyone used to more conventional readings such as Mullova’s or‚ even more‚ Chung’s‚ will find it sounding very hectic‚ rather lacking in the rhythmic bounce which can so readily warm this neoclassical writing. Hahn’s reading of the finale brings a similarly urgent speed‚ again with the power and intensity of the writing intensified‚ and with little of the work’s geniality conveyed. It is certainly a valid view‚ but will not please everyone used to other readings. Hahn‚ needless to say‚ in the two arias conveys to the full the meditative depth of the writing. The result is to underline the toughness of the work‚ making it more clearly an apt coupling for the epic Brahms concerto‚ plainly as Hahn intends.
As a unique coupling‚ the new disc makes an excellent recommendation‚ for the discrepancy of balance between the movements is not likely to disturb too many. Taking the Brahms alone‚ there is no clear winner between the different versions I have listed. They all have their points in favour‚ all of them very fine‚ though the live Vienna recording for Chung is not quite as clear orchestrally as the others. My own preference would still be for Tasmin Little’s warm‚ strong reading‚ with its element of volatility in the outer movements and an entry in the slow movement that really is piano‚ dolce.