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Another Hilary Invades Manhattan

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/10/2000 -  
Kevin Beavers: Sinfonia
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in C
Johannes BrahmsViolin Concerto

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

"…even the vast range of key and contrast through which we have been carried cannot dispel the impression that the whole movement is a single unbroken melody. Thus the reason why some critics have thought it too slight is the very reason why it is gigantic…", Donald Francis Tovey wrote of the slow movement in the Brahms Violin Concerto. The oboe introduction to this movement is so extraordinary that the original candidate to premiere the work as violin soloist withdrew, challenging the composer: "…with so much beautiful music going on, what am I supposed to do?" and leaving the honor of first performance to Brahms' dear friend (and technical adviser for the piece) Joseph Joachim. Since this is my own personal favorite in the genre, I have developed high critical standards for its performance. The tantalizing combination of the warmest sounding orchestra in America accompanying a relatively young soloist thus created high expectations in my normally jaded journalist's heart. In the main, I was not disappointed.

Hilary Hahn is a twenty-year-old violinist with a big reputation and a sound to match. Supremely confident, she attacked the first movement of the Brahms like a tigress. She possesses that mostly rare of qualities: a true singing tone. I was most impressed with her intelligent use of rubato, seeing every orchestral fermata as an opportunity for her to express her own ideas about phrasing and totally captivating the audience in the process. She is extremely nimble as well and blended magnificently with the lush Philadelphia string sound. Additionally, she is a good listener, visibly fascinated with the music making around her at every turn. Her vibrato was excellent and this first movement was as pleasing as an old performance by Milstein or Elman. This is a performance that even Rick Lazio could love.

Curiously, the excellence of the opening immediately raised my expectations a notch and so I was a little let down when the bassoon began the second movement tentatively. Ms. Hahn insists on not vibrating her strings before she begins playing and so her first two notes don't blossom as they should (and seem discordant with her remaining generous sentiment). Although the second movement was very fine indeed, I thirsted for more because I know that she is capable of giving it. Perhaps if this were another concerto, say the Tchaikovsky, I wouldn't even mention this, but in the Brahms I crave perfection of expression.

Exhibiting her enthusiasm and inexperience, she chose an impossibly rapid tempo for the finale. Ms. Hahn was forced to slur many passages, thus leaving much of the music behind and reinforcing once again the equation that fast does not equal exciting. But her amazing depth of sound and her total sense of mastery will serve her well in future. This is definitely a woman only one small step away from greatness.

In the first half of the program, a solid performance of the Stravinsky was proceeded by an intriguing piece by the young Kevin Beavers. The punster in me (damn him!) insists that the work was a little busy at times, but the second movement was especially poetic and sonically interesting. Mr. Beavers has a good sense of timbre and his last essay, describing a chatty friend, put me in mind of the Enigma Variations. But this night belonged to Hilary and her lucky listeners. It is very gratifying to see her already at this exalted level.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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