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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Poème Op 25 (1896) [16:57]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No 1 Op 19 (1923) [21:27]
Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (1928-2016)
Deux Sérénades [14:27]
Hilary Hahn (violin)
Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra/Mikko Franck
rec. Auditorium de Radio France, Paris February 2019 (Rautavaara), June 2019 (Prokofiev, Chausson)
Reviewed from digital press preview

In reviewing this disc, I made the error of looking at the packaging before listening to the music. Everything about it screams that this release is a star vehicle. An impression compounded by the violinist’s own vapid reflections on the inspiration for the album which read like the script of Emily in Paris. Mercifully, the music contained in the packaging is an entirely different matter.

I can’t say, though, that I was particularly convinced by the Paris theme, which seemed tangential at best. These disparate works may be meaningfully linked in Hahn’s head but they weren’t in mine. A more serious gripe is the short measure on offer. By my estimation, there is enough room on this CD for the second of Prokofiev’s violin concerti. Or, since it is mentioned twice in the liner notes, ought this not to have been the opportunity to record the Rautavaraa violin concerto she tells us she has been championing?

Enough with complaints for now. Hahn is a wonderful violinist and that is very much in evidence here. Throughout her approach is cool and elegant and she makes some absolutely bewitching sounds. Chausson’s Poème, written in 1896, is a vivid product of Fin de Siècle Paris, inspired by a Turgenev story about a ménage a trois. Personally, I prefer it a bit riper and more sensual but Hahn still ravishes the ear. If we were talking French film stars this is more Catherine Deneuve than Brigitte Bardot. It made me think about this music, which is what the best performances do. Mikko Franck’s French forces match the soloist’s approach with playing that is restrained and classy.

An unhappy premiere in the city seems to be the main link between Paris and the Prokofiev first violin concerto. It is, nonetheless, the best thing on the record and stands up to comparison with the very best. Putting her alongside Vengerov, a recording I had a very high opinion of when it came out, the Russian sounds both staid and heavy handed. There is a Mendelssohnian agility to Hahn’s playing throughout, making light of its immense technical difficulties. In a recent interview, Hahn described the concerto as “impossible”. You wouldn’t know that here. Her way with the long opening melody is particularly winning. She allows it to breathe naturally where Vengerov and Chung with Previn sound a little rigid.

A word, briefly, about the sound. It is absolutely lovely and registers the tiniest details of Prokofiev’s orchestration but without artificial spotlighting. The placing of the soloist is more first amongst equals than it is on something like Oistrakh’s legendary recording with Matacic, which mikes the Russian maestro very closely indeed. Hahn clearly enjoys a productive rapport with the orchestra and conductor and it shows in passages such as the close of the first movement where the composer weaves a diaphanous texture of harps and strings. Hahn remains the centre of focus here but never at the expense of her colleagues. This is one of many moments where the beauty of her playing stopped me in my tracks.

Mendelssohn was again on my mind listening to the scherzo-like middle movement. I want to return to Oistrakh to make a point about the approach to this work. To my ears at least, Hahn is not particularly Russian in this work, especially not in this movement. Oistrakh very definitely is. This will be a matter of taste. Both approaches work. What I mean by Russian is a kind of earthy soulfulness that oozes out of Oistrakh’s violin. For the Russian, the ethereal opening theme descends into much more forthright passion. Likewise, the quicker music sounds more like the work of Prokofiev the enfant terrible of modernism. In the liner notes, Robert Kirziger locates this work in the lyrical tradition of the Classical Symphony and I feel that Hahn probably does, too. Hahn does not lack bite but her interest seems mostly coloristic. There is, however, nothing shallow about her interpretation. The effect is quite dazzling and I was quite persuaded by her way with this music.

I can’t say I was overly taken with the two Rautavaara pieces, both recorded live at their premiere. Rautavaara has always seemed a pleasant enough composer, writing in an accessible, consonant style but he has never grabbed my ear with anything like excitement. These pieces did little to change that view. If I can be forgiven the worst sort of snobbery, I can see them going down a storm on Classic FM. The second of these pieces, both of which were written for the violinist, has a little more to it and I’m sure many will enjoy them both more than I did. They were the last compositions Rautavaara worked on and were left incomplete on his death. The Finnish composer, Kalevi Aho, a Rautavaara pupil, completed the orchestration. The performance is everything one could want for – dedicated, intense with lashings of Hahn’s inimitable beauty of sound.

It is a pity that this review contains as many caveats as it does, as this is a very fine disc. The Prokofiev is a thoroughly wonderful performance, but I am left with a feeling of slight dissatisfaction as though all of the ingredients don’t quite add up. Some of this will depend of how much one enjoys the Rautavaara. I would be very keen to hear these forces in the second Prokofiev concerto but I do not wish to pour cold water on more imaginative programming, especially when it includes contemporary music. Perhaps it is as simple as, faced with such sumptuous violin playing, I just wanted more.

David McDade



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