INKPOT — Elgar Violin Concerto, Vaughan-Williams The Lark Ascending, London Symphony Orchestra, Hilary Hahn, Colin Davis
|Direct comparisons with Kennedy’s version of these two same works, released by EMI a few years ago, are inevitable, though the artistes would be loathe to have themselves compared with one another. Hilary Hahn operates on a different emotional temperature in the Elgar — those who like it played heart-on-sleeve will be disappointed, since her version, though not lacking in passion, is rather cool.
Two general “schools” of how this work should be played have emerged through the years — Elgar’s own recording with the young Menuhin (still fresh and touching and a must listen despite the early sound) is fleet and unfussy and he certainly knew how the music should go. Sir Colin Davis’ view of the work falls in the expansive school, or so he leads you to think at the start of the work with the orchestral exposition. Hahn’s performance of the first movement is (somewhat disappointingly) direct, and for a violinist so interested in the old ways of playing, surprisingly devoid of portamento and vibrato-light, so important in the traditional performances of this concerto.
Technically, Hahn engages the musical hoops of fire on her instrument with no difficulty whatsoever. Emotionally it fell short and I missed that wonderful wistful, aching feeling conveyed by Menuhin and Elgar in the more introspective bits. Turning then to Albert Sammons and Henry Woods, one misses the characterization and easy, confident navigation through the music.
The second movement keeps the same aloof distance, Hahn’s violin emoting a little more here as we move along, but still too detached for this music. Listening to Zukerman’s version with the London Philharmonic and Barenboim, you see what’s missing — the LSO play well, if a bit lacking in tension, with Colin Davis, but Barenboim’s conducting really goes hand-in-glove with Zukerman’s playing and they produce magic right from the opening bars. Sony’s miking has to do with this as well — Hilary Hahn’s playing as recorded by Deutsche Grammophon comes out sounding uni-dimensional. When Menuhin, Sammons or Zukerman play it sounds like speaking; with Hahn it comes off sounding like a person reciting a poem while missing all the cadences of the language.
Hahn plays with no difficulty at all in the music of the last movement, but the impression stays that she is uncomfortable with the emotional aspect of the music, or not in tune with it. Still this is the movement that turnsout the best. The LSO provide firm support here, and Hahn seems best in the virtuosic aspects of the music, though here again she chooses less propulsion. Things pick up in time for the accompanied cadenza (quite fine), though once again later she misses the inherent tragedy in the recap of the first movement theme. The necessary excitement does finally come, in time for the coda, but it’s too little too late, and the victory feels hollow.
The Lark Ascending is a wonderful piece, and Hahn is much freer here in here playing, less cooped-up, than in the Elgar. Here some poetry finally emerges, and there is much to enjoy.
Hilary Hahn is an artiste I admire tremendously, and I simply think that she hasn’t had enough experience and maturity in this concerto to do it justice. But a few of her early albums of the great concerti have shown this same problem. I do hope that she grows, her understanding will grow too.
For those seeking out performances of the Elgar, Kennedy’s early performance with Handley, as well as Zukerman’s performance with Barenboim are highly recommended. If you are interested in performance as it were when Elgar wrote the work there’s no beating Menuhin or Sammons, now both on Naxos.
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365: 12.12.1998 Chia Han-Leon
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