Hillary Hahn’s new “Eclipse” CD is listened to and evaluated by Thomas Dawkins
The release of a new Hilary Hahn recording is always somewhat of an event even though it has been happening nearly every year since 1997, and when it does not occur there are several years with multiple releases to make up for it.
Hahn took a sabbatical for the 2019-2020 season and her return to the concert platform was the Dvorák concerto with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under the baton of Andrés Orozco-Estrada in April of 2021, which I watched as soon as it was broadcast on YouTube. This was followed in July by the Ginastera concerto and Sarasate Carmen-Fantasie with the same orchestra and conductor. These performances have since been hidden from YouTube, unfortunately, probably because they form the basis of this CD release. I say the basis because I don’t know how much patching there might have been but as the CD does not say “live recordings” there must have been some, though as the originals are no longer viewable, I have no basis for comparison. (Copyright protection as well- Ed.)
The Frankfurt Radio Symphony is vastly underrated. Europe and Germany in particular are full of orchestras: Berlin Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Staatskapelle Dresden, and then those formed for broadcast: Bavarian Radio Symphony, SWR Symphony, a total of over 60 ensembles. Because they are a broadcast orchestra, Frankfurt has continued to play in some form or another since April 2020: short solo recitals, chamber music, small orchestral pieces recorded in their hall in high-definition video, and excellent sound. They are performing live, so there is the occasional missed note or awkward camera angle, but many music lovers have found them indispensable for the past two years and I hope that it has awakened international interest in them as well as respect for their excellence.
The Dvorák concerto is not perhaps at the same level as the Tchaikovsky violin concerto when it comes to notoriety — perhaps because of its proportions; most of the Romantic concerti have a long first movement with shorter second and third movements whereas Dvorák’s are almost equal in length — but it is a wonderful and substantial composition, not just a vehicle for a virtuoso violinist though it is not short on technical challenge either.
My first impression watching the broadcast was that Hahn was playing more aggressively than she had before and that I liked her approach a great deal. Technique has never been a question with her and while I’ve always found her performances to be engaging, there has been some critique of her being emotionally aloof, which is certainly not the case here. The first movement is fiery, the second intimate and warm, and the third full of joy.
The joy is real, too. According to Ms. Hahn’s essay, these recordings almost didn’t happen. Not having appeared in concert for her sabbatical season plus another several months forced by the global pandemic, she was full of doubts and called maestro Orozco-Estrada in tears to cancel. Somehow, he was able to persuade her to go through with the concert, and whether or not the recording beyond the initial Livestream happened (there was no audience in the hall for this concert) was entirely up to her. Fortunately for Ms. Hahn, and us she writes “with the first phrase, I found myself again… It was an occasion of reunification with performing.”
While there are dozens of recordings of the Dvorák from which to choose, if you want to hear the Ginastera, there are live recordings by its dedicatee Ruggiero Ricci (1963 at its premiere under Leonard Bernstein), Salvatore Accardo (1968), Andrew Wan (2019), and the present release. The form of the concerto is unusual, to say the least, in eleven sections. The first eight form the first movement: cadenza, six “studies” and a coda, then a slow movement “for 22 soloists,” followed by a scherzo and Perpetuum mobile finale.
It will not be everybody’s cup of tea, as Ginastera embraces dissonance and even has a section called “study in 24 quarter-tones,” which are mostly held in clusters by solo strings. For the soloist, referring again to Ms. Hahn’s own words, it is “nearly unplayable.” Indeed, the score is extremely daunting, and sometimes the violin part is written on two lines like a piano part.
For the orchestra, it isn’t much easier, especially for a large number of percussion instruments. The violin alone begins the journey with a five-and-a-half-minute-long cadenza which doesn’t sound all that showy but listening with the score I can tell you that its demands on the violin are quite inhuman. But that is exactly what we have here, somebody for whom these technical demands appear to pose practically no challenges. I would be lying if I said there weren’t a few places where it sounds like she’s working a bit, but I think the main reason there are so few recordings of the work is that I can imagine even the greatest of violinists having taken one look at this score and thrown it away!
The 22 soloists of the second movement Adagio are all of the principal strings (except the second violin), brass, and winds plus the auxiliary winds (piccolo, English horn, etc.) timpani, glockenspiel, celesta, and harp. So, in essence, this is a large piece of chamber music with very precise interactions between people who are not necessarily close in distance. This movement is particularly well-played with a unity of thought and articulation that is hard to find in a quartet let alone spread out over a whole orchestra. The finale is short and impeccable.
Sarasate’s Carmen-Fantasie is one of many showy works based on Bizet’s opera Carmen. Much of the orchestration is taken directly from the original with the violinist acting as the vocal soloist and much more. This is a star-power piece and was a calling card for Itzhak Perlman for many years. You will never hear a cleaner recording than this one; the cascades of nearly impossible tricks just fly out of Hahn’s Vuillaume like they were born there: impeccably tuned thirds and octaves, artificial harmonics, left-hand pizzicato, and every conceivable bow stroke. Add to this that everybody sounds not only beautiful but impassioned and like they’re having a great time and you’ll be ready to jump out of your seat at the end, too.
Since this is an audiophile publication, I must say a few words about the sonics of the recording. The engineers of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony know how to do their jobs as far as microphone positioning and I’m sure that Deutsche Grammophon had quite a bit to say in this matter as well.
Occasionally we hear a little more bow noise from the soloist than I might find ideal, but it is not a distraction except on a couple of impossibly high notes where backing off the close-up microphones might have given a purer sound without the friction noise. This also might be seen as a “studio trick” and therefore not desired. The soundscape and image locational effects are excellent, and I feel like I’m in the expensive seats of the HR-Sendesaal or the Frankfurt Alte Oper. I really cannot recommend this CD too highly for the familiar and unfamiliar pieces it contains.
Hillary Hahn, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Frankfurt Radio Symphony
WHERE the MUSIC BEAT meets the AUDIOPHILE ELITE !
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