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review added: 4/7/03

Hilary Hahn:
Mendelssohn & Shostakovich - Violin Concertos

2002 (2002) - Sony Classical

review by John Nelson of MusicTAP

Super Audio CDStereo/Multi-ChannelDirect Stream Digital

Hilary Hahn: Mendelssohn & Shostakovich - Violin Concertos (SACD) Album Rating: A-

Audio Ratings (SACD 5.1/2.0): A/A

Extras Rating: N/A

Specs and Features

64 mins, single-sided, dual-layered, jewel case packaging, liner notes booklet, track access (8 tracks - see track listing below), audio formats: SACD DSD 5.1 & 2.0

Stereo Mix Produced by: Thomas Frost
5.1 Mix Produced by: Thomas Frost
DSD Engineer: Andrew Granger

Hilary Hahn (violin), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - Hugh Wolff, Conductor/Shostakovich Violin Concerto 1 - Marek Janowski, Conductor)

Hilary Hahn was recently called America's best young classical musician by Time magazine. Not that I'd hang my hat on anything musically meaningful within those pages, but in this case, I'd have to agree. But to dwell on the fact that Hahn is 22 and then to remark on how surprisingly well she plays is to completely miss the mark and also to qualify her ability; she's no longer a child prodigy. Her playing is quite mature and her interpretations confident. Her cup of talent is full to the brim.

Hahn's relationship with Sony began with 1997's Hilary Hahn Plays Bach, and has recorded several of the established warhorse violin concerti for Sony. Her latest Sony release tackles the Mendelssohn and the Shostakovich First, which, if you read the liner notes - written by Hahn incidentally - will tell you that they were written under opposite circumstances. Mendelssohn's, written while on vacation, is sweet, happy, and full of life. Shostakovich's was written under the full weight of Stalin's pressure. In fact, his music was frequently scrutinized and judged vulgar and an example of “formalism,” which was not acceptable under the Stalin regime. Shostakovich's first violin concerto premiered nearly two years after the death of Stalin to triumphant reviews. But enough of history lessons.

Hilary Hahn's version of the Mendelssohn concerto is outstanding. Her sweetness of tone is emphatic yet not overtly emotional, which if not properly gauged can kill a performance of this wonderful concerto. Technically, her playing is superb. She is given sympathetic and thoughtful support from the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra led by Hugh Wolff. But there are occasions when I wished the orchestra didn't stay right on her. This is an exuberant work were the soloist dazzles; there is no need for an orchestra to propel the violinist along. Hahn is in complete command of the Mendelssohn piece. Nothing is lacking in her interpretation of Mendelssohn, and although there might be more glorious versions, (Heifetz's recording with Charles Munch and The Boston Symphony Orchestra or Menuhin with Wilhelm Furtwangler and The Berlin Philharmonic come to mind), her performance is first rate. The sound on the Hahn disc is extraordinary, owing to the high quality audio afforded by the SACD process.

As for her recording of the Shostakovich First, I stand alone. Many have torn her version to pieces and I have to wonder if they've all just been rewriting each other's reviews. I really enjoyed her performance, and the support by The Oslo Philharmonic is nearly dead on. Having said this, I don't believe it is the best version available, but you could go way worse with other recordings, plus the sound is breathtaking and rarified. Here, Hahn and the orchestra play as of the same mind in the same moment.

In the first movement (Nocturne), she plays with some lightness (but no lack of profundity) and agility. Hahn finds the humor in the otherwise grotesque mocking of the second movement (Scherzo). The third movement (Passacaglia) opens ponderously and perhaps not as stultifying and full of dread as the first movement. Approximately six minutes into the Passacaglia, Hahn's violin briefly takes on incredible tone, ceasing to sound like a violin at all; if you don't get a chill from this you must be dead. Short digression. At this point, I stopped Hahn's disc and put on my copy of Vadim Repin's version of the Shostakovich First (Erato 10696) and listened to the same passage. Here, then, is the reason why the vaults of the great music corporations should be opened wide and the best performances put on SACD. Repin's playing here is even more extraordinary, and on CD, his passage almost breaks through like Hahn's, but the musical shine of the SACD recording renders Hahn's violin that much more insistent and puts Hahn's passage over the top. This, for me, demonstrates strongly and persuasively for the reissuing of Repin's, Lydia Mordkovitch's (Chandos 8820), and particularly Maxim Vengerov's versions (see below) of this masterpiece on SACD so that all top-flight performances can be judged on a (reasonably) level playing field.

Back to the cadenza: Hahn's solo cadenza, at the end of the third movement, is heartbreakingly poignant and profound. This is sublime playing and helps puts her version among the top echelon of the Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto recordings. The written score here drips with desolation and the desperation of someone trying to find his or her way out of (a personal?) Hell. The cadenza, which formally is the last section of the third movement (Passacaglia), falls right into the beginning of the breathtaking fourth movement (Burlesque). Some might quibble that Hahn's violin is balanced forward in the soundscape (I don't, and this is fairly typical of Sony Classical recording mixes), but the exceptional timbre is not unnatural in anyway. Put this in your collection along side those recordings made by Midori, Repin, Vengerov, Mordkovitch, or the work's dedicatee, David Oistrakh.

If you've not heard this music, and don't mind a little soul-wrenching music complete with gut-hitting sonorities, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Hahn's concerto recording. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this music will affect you for hours after you've finished listening. You won't be disappointed. Plus, the excellent Mendelssohn concerto will cheer you up.

The two-channel stereo mix on this SACD sounds very good; crisp highs, deep bass, and quite good separation all around. However, the multitrack surround mix is just that much more. The whole soundstage is fuller; I felt immersed in the glorious soundscape emanating from my speakers. (Nonetheless, it's important to note that the surround effect is subtle rather than over-the-top.) You'll feel like you are traveling on the edge of Hahn's bow. That's how clear and magnified the sound is on this DSD master. Would that more recordings of these masterpieces were available on SACD. Between the two mixes I found myself listening more often to the multichannel much more frequently; the orchestra might just as well by in my listening room with me flapping my arms... I'm mean conducting. I do have one bone to pick and it doesn't have to do with the recording. It would behoove Sony to release its new SACDs as hybrid disks that contain CD-compatible mixes. You might want to play your disk on a boom box or in the car (CD) and then put the disc in your great sound system in your home (SACD), but not too many people are willing to shell out for two discs for maximum player compatibility. Additionally, in order for the SACD platform to take off and become well-established, the prices of these disks will have to remain competitive with those of CDs.

Looking for a good place to start the addition of your first classical SACD? You won't be disappointed by starting here.

John Nelson
Visit Matt Rowe's MusicTAP ------ Music Flows There!

Track Listing:

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E Minor, op. 64 - Felix Mendelssohn

I - Allegro molto appassionato
II - Andante
III - Allegretto non troppo- Allegro molto vivace

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in A Minor, op. 77
- Dimitri Shostakovich

I - Nocturne Moderato
II - Scherzo Allegro
III - Passacaglia Andante
IV - Burlesque Allegro con brio

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