Hahn Eclipse 4862383

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
Violin Concerto in A minor Op 53
Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)
Violin Concerto Op 30
Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908)
Carmen Fantasy Op 25
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Andrés Orozco-Estrada
rec. 2021 at Alte Oper & hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

It seems these days that just coupling works together on a record isn’t sufficient. They must express some kind of programme or personal journey. With the former there are many more failures than successes. With the latter I find that what gets foisted on the listener, usually in the former of artist written liner notes, seldom has much to do with the music. It is a little like people posting pictures of their dinner on Twitter without ever asking themselves why anyone else might care.

This new release from Hilary Hahn is a case in point. When I read the track list I wondered how these three works are meant to hang together as a coherent programme under the title, ‘Eclipse’. The short answer is that they don’t. The eclipse of the title refers to the violinist’s experiences being prevented from playing by Covid lockdowns. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the music included on this album nor does it even seem to have had any significant impact on the way the pieces included are played. In other words title and liner notes are a small slice of autobiography. Admittedly, Hahn’s experiences under lockdown are much more interesting than the average Twitterati post but hopefully my point stands.

All this said, what we get is a record consisting of three distinctly strangely matched bedfellows. But what of the performances?

I can’t quite tell whether it is the fault of very close miking of the soloist, Hahn’s manner or a combination of both but I found her Dvorak featured rather too much of the violin equivalent of being repeatedly hectored. There is an argument for a tougher approach to this score rather than seeing it as essentially soft centred but in its more hushed moments I wanted something a little less stridently in my face. Whilst this issue is most problematic in the first movement, it does mar for me what would otherwise be a tender and expressive take on the slow movement. There is a hardness to Hahn’s tone which is unrecognisable from her previous recordings.

This effect is less of a problem in the more brilliant and extrovert finale but in this movement I found Hahn a little stiff and unsmiling in this most rhythmically flexible and buoyant of Czech dances. Surprisingly, her conducting partner and orchestra sound equally unbending. There is a lot of super violin playing particularly when Hahn digs in on the G string but it is all a bit lacking in magic and charm. Afraid lest I was being unfairly grumpy with this record I turned to one of favourite versions of this lovely concerto – a mono taping by Nathan Milstein with Antal Dorati in a Naxos remastering – and here was the missing sorcery and flair as well as oodles of fire even if the sound isn’t great.

The second work of the odd trio that makes up Eclipse, Ginastera’s Violin Concerto, is a different matter entirely. For starters, the sound is a massive improvement with a warm acoustic in which Hahn’s golden tone gleams. The performance is absolutely electrifying. As I stumped unimpressed from the Dvořák to this largely forgotten mid twentieth century work I expected to be underwhelmed but Hahn’s magnetism grabbed me by the shirt collar from the first note and didn’t let up until the last. It was hard to believe that this uninhibited fury of the violin was the same buttoned down soloist as in the Dvořák. Orozco-Estrada and his Frankfurt band meet her fire with fire and the whole performance is on a higher level of commitment and passion to the rest of the programme.

Ginstera is usually described as the most important Argentinian composer of the twentieth century though I suspect he has ceded that moniker to Astor Piazzolla and his ubiquitous tangos. I will probably attract brickbats from Piazzolla fans if I describe Ginastera as the most important serious Argentinian composer of the twentieth century though his reputation has largely shrunk to that of historical footnote in relation to mainstream concert programming. On the evidence of this concerto – at least as performed here – that is a great pity. The second half of the last century is in danger of becoming a graveyard of superb composers without the advocacy of high profile performers like Hahn.

The violin concerto comes from the era of Ginastera’s flirtation with modernist techniques such twelve tone rows though I hope old prejudices about that label don’t put off curious listeners. For all its great seriousness this is a charismatic work full of drama and humanity all scored in the lushest manner. I haven’t been able to track down any alternative recordings of the work which is in itself remarkable. It is unlikely, however, that any previous recording could match the Rolls Royce treatment it gets on this recording. It is an intensely passionate work and everyone involved seems in tune with its spirit. Somewhat sourly I found myself thinking that what I was hearing was the excitement of performers liberated from the routine of endless iterations of the Brahms or Beethoven concertos.

After the highs of the Ginastera, I’m afraid I came crashing back down to earth with the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy. If this were a Hollywood movie, I would be complaining of serious miscasting. It’s not that Hahn doesn’t play with consummate technical mastery. She is too straight laced for the gypsy wizardry of this piece. In concert, almost certainly a delight but on record there are too many better versions. The Habanera, for example, is unlikely to seduce anyone much other than those whose idea of a good time is a Prussian march.

I am left unsure what to make of this record. The Ginastera is one of the best concerto recordings of the year and deserves to resurrect a major work but it alone is unlikely to sell many copies. Dvořák and Sarasate will shift units but I find them both unsatisfactory and strictly for die hard admirers of Hahn. I do hope people buy this as nobody will be disappointed with the Ginastera even if they didn’t come to this album looking for it.

David McDade

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (November 2022)

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