Mendelssohn; Shostakovich Violin Concertos

Brilliant playing, vibrant and bright – and perhaps better suited to Shostakovich than to Mendelssohn

Author: 
Rob Cowan

Mendelssohn; Shostakovich Violin Concertos

  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1

Years ago the merest mention of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto brought just two key stylistic templates to mind: David Oistrakh and, a little later, Leonid Kogan. Oistrakh in particular had fashioned such a warm and intimate reading of the piece that it became almost impossible to imagine a credible alternative. And yet the passing years have brought many, not least Perlman, Mullova, Vengerov and Repin, to name some of the best.

Hilary Hahn is certainly in their league, though different again. She is a lean, athletic player, utterly still at the muted centre of the Concerto’s first movement, and with elfin agility in the Scherzo, which is swifter than her most recent rival – Ilya Gringolts – by almost a minute and a half. I prefer Hahn, primarily because her sweetness-and-steel tone, with its expressive but narrow vibrato, lends a fresh perspective to the work but also because Marek Janowski’s conducting is a good deal more focused than Itzhak Perlman’s for Gringolts.

Some might find Hahn’s approach a trifle cool, especially in the cadenza where the untamed Gringolts throws any semblance of caution to the winds, firing off in all directions with little mind for surface polish. Hahn is a very clean player, colour-conscious but never dangerous in the manner of Gringolts, though she does engage in some active dialogue with individual soloists, most memorably with the bassoons at around 3'09" into the scherzo. Only the finale seems to me a little short on what I might call ambiguous sparks – where sudden ignition could be taken either as celebration or protest – but as fiddle-playing per se, it really does cut the mustard. Among digital rivals Vengerov and Repin (especially) are still tops in my book, though as Hahn is nearer than they are to the honeyed tones of pre-war players some collectors might favour her on that count alone.

As to the coupling, Hahn follows her own by-now familiar trend of pairing the old with the relatively new (Beethoven, Bernstein; Brahms, Stravinsky), a nice idea though whether tidy-minded collectors who prefer to keep like with like find it as useful is open to debate. I often wonder whether by promoting such seemingly incongruous couplings companies are shooting themselves in the foot, but never mind.

Again Hahn gives a swift, resilient, bright-toned reading, tender-hearted in the Andante (a lovely spot of playing) and very fast in the finale. Too fast perhaps for true composure, and when Hahn, in her reader-friendly notes, claims that ‘recordings from the turn of the [20th] century’ suggest that the finale used to be played more quickly, she may not be taking into account strictures imposed by single-sided 78s. By that I mean cuts and speeds that were probably faster than the norm (Huberman springs immediately to mind).

Still, it’s a fine display but if I were to choose a new-ish Mendelssohn along similar lines it would be Joshua Bell’s recording (also for Sony) with Camerata Salzburg under Sir Roger Norrington, light-textured like Hahn, but breezier, more relaxed and with a luminous accompaniment that is more revealing than the rather less yielding Oslo Phil under Hugh Wolff. A fine disc all the same, confirming Hilary Hahn as among the most gifted and individual younger players on the concert circuit.

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