Saturday, August 16, 2008

Schoenberg and Sibelius: Violin Concertos performed by Hilary Hahn, violin, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

The sole violin concerto written by composer Jean Sibelius is my single favorite piece of music. I've heard several recordings of it, from Jascha Heifetz (stunning) to Maxim Vengerov (disappointing save for a rousing finale), and any new recording excites me with the possibilities.

Hilary Hahn's recent recording of the Sibelius violin concerto, under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, is nothing less than gorgeous. Her tones are pure, and she extends the slow parts, squeezing every last bit of emotion out of them. Salonen and the orchestra offer commendable support. In contrast, the violinists I've heard before this (all men, if that matters) seemed to be interested more in just hitting all the notes perfectly. Hahn opened a new door for me.

The Schoenberg violin concerto paired on the disc was written using the composer's pioneering dodecaphonic (or 12-tone) technique. Schoenberg himself pronounced it "unplayable" (with pride!), but Hahn gives it the old college try and manages to draw a discernible melody out of the dissonance. This is definitely the more challenging listen of the two pieces, but repeated tries are most definitely rewarded, especially for those interested in the history of modern classical music (Schoenberg is the undisputed progenitor of such phase, so I'm reserving judgment until I can get my head around it properly with a few listens. Also, I have no frame of reference, never having heard it before.

Twenty years ago, Salonen led violinist Cho-Liang Lin in a recording of the Sibelius violin concerto (paired with the violin concerto of Sibelius's fellow countryman Carl Nielsen) that has since become a classic. I have no doubt that this Hahn performance will achieve an equal level of respect over time.

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