Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Hilary Hahn and D Major Violin Concerti

Recently I finished The Teaching Company's course The Concerto, taught by Robert Greenberg. In one of the lectures, (I wish I could remember which one) he mentioned that there are a lot of violin concerti written in the key of D major because that key has the most notes with open strings (not fingered) on the violin. Hence, those notes are the most resonant, and sound best. This got me looking through my music library, and, sure enough, D major shows up often.

This led me to sample the recordings of Hilary Hahn. I'd seen the recordings here and there, and I can't really say why I had not sampled them before. Maybe I had some sort of bias against teen phenoms. In any event, she has all grown up (I think she is 26 or 27 at this writing), and is a graceful as well as gorgeous figure on her CD pictures. She is also amazingly talented.

Because I love the music of Brahms so much, I started with her recording of his Opus 77, which also has a performance of Stravinsky's violin concerto, both in D major. For a few weeks I virtually lived listening to the Brahms, usually multiple times a day. It is an amazing piece, and has an interesting story about how it was composed. Hahn relates the story of how Brahms, at the age of 45, began composing the work, sending bits of it to his good friend Joseph Joachim, one of the most famous violinists of the 19th century. Over time, the two men worked on it, with Joachim offering suggestions to Brahms.

I need to point out that, in many (if not most) concerti, the composer leaves a space for a cadenza, which allows the performer to insert solo music that showcases his or her talents. In some cases, the cadenza is an improvisation. Mozart, when he performed his piano concerti, often improvised in his own works, and so we do not have his cadenzas (sadly). In other cases, the performer will compose a cadenza, sometimes working with the conductor of the orchestra with whom he will play the piece. These are written down, and modern performers have the option of choosing among them for a particular performance.

For this recording, Hahn has chosen to play Joachim's cadenza, which appears in the first movement and is quite enjoyable.

I'm not much of a fan of the dissonant sound that characterizes so much of 20th century music, but Igor Stravinsky wrote in various styles throughout his life (including scores for movies). His Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D is a quirky but charming work that does some interesting things with counterpoint along the lines of the music of Bach (but not as subtle). You hear a lot of brass as you do in a lot of Baroque music. Each movement starts with the same chord (it doesn't sound like a major chord to me), and goes on from there.

Next, I found myself listening to Hahn's recording of Beethoven's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 61. I believe this is the only violin concerto that Beethoven wrote, and it was a commissioned work. Also on this recording is a work by Leonard Bernstein, Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion.

Apparently, this is a characteristic of Hahn's recordings; she couples two seemingly unrelated works, which turn out to be not so unrelated after all. She explains her selections on the CD liner notes, so we get an idea of why she chose a particular pairing.

Though not in D major, I want to point out her recording of Edward Elgar's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 61, which she pairs with Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending. The Elgar concerto is just a few second shy of 50 minutes long! The first time I listened, I kept wondering, "When does the first movement end?" By the time I reached the third movement, I picked up the CD case and saw how long this work is (and the third movement is the longest of all!). Hahn did not write the liner notes for this recording, though she does include an open verse poem she wrote expressing her feelings towards the music.

Her website makes for fun reading, with occasional entries in a journal, personal tidbits (how to keep yourself from going crazy in your hotel room), biographical info and performance schedule.

This morning I received an e-mail that Hahn has a new album soon to be released, with performances of Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1 (in D major, of course), coupled with Louis Spohr's eighth violin concerto, this one in the key of A minor. Hahn is so talented that it will be interesting to hear her playing Paganini, perhaps the greatest violinist of all time. With such a long career in front of her, Hahn just might give Paganini a run for that distinction.