Hilary Hahn – ‘Mendelssohn and Shostakovich: Violin Concertos’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Half of why I dislike the sound of this disc is due to the difficult acoustics of the concert hall, though other companies have recorded in Oslo’s Konzerthus with more success. But the other half is due to a disagreement in recording philosophy: I have boundless admiration for great musical performers, but they are performers, not gods. And though major-label corporate marketing tries desperately to suggest otherwise, they aren’t pop idols, either. The technique of using microphones to spotlight the soloist has been around ever since electronic microphones were invented, but it has been growing more extreme in recent years. Thus I find this recent non-hybrid multichannel Super Audio Compact Disc of Mendelssohn and Shostakovich concertos played by young star Hilary Hahn quite disappointing. The performances aren’t all bad. But the recording… Aye, there’s the rub.

To visualize the sound in this recording, imagine yourself sitting in the tenth row of a concert hall. The concert hall is not a great sounding hall, tending to congest textures and sound a bit airless, but then again, it isn’t the worst hall in the world, either. The Oslo Philharmonic is sitting on stage covered with a sheet of gauze that deadens the high notes, playing the opening bars of Mendelssohn’s ‘Violin Concerto in e minor’. Suddenly a twenty-foot-tall Hilary Hahn (that’s a six-and-a-half-meter-tall Hilary Hahn for readers in progressive countries) materializes right in front of you in the ninth row, playing a huge violin about the size of a refrigerator that puts out as much tone at pianissimo as the entire violin section of the orchestra (first and seconds) at mezzo forte. That’s roughly what this recording sounds like. That is what I call a “star” recording, though that term of disparagement is not meant to imply that Hahn is a diva or demanded this sort of recording herself. Rather, it has become of common plague of major label recordings in recent years, and the fault for this one presumably must be laid at the feet of producer Thomas Frost. Here the spotlighting is almost as bad as the recent Deutsche Grammophon recording of Mahler’s ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, who were reduced to mere accompaniment to Anne-Sophie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff’s larger-than-life voices. If I want to hear close-up, amplified voices, I’ll go listen to a rock album, where it belongs and is actually part of the musical design. For the classics, I’d rather hear the music recorded in a manner which acknowledges that maybe, just maybe, the composer knew what the hell he was doing when he wrote it.

If that weren’t enough to compromise things, the 5.1 surround program on this disc is close to useless. From my normal center listening position, I could not distinguish any real difference between the stereo and multichannel programs. Neither offers any appreciable sense of depth in the orchestral picture, which is dominated by the solo violin. The difference was so negligible, I wondered if perhaps the multichannel program had been inadvertently left off the disc. When I got up and went over to one of the rear channel speakers, what I could hear was a faint, distant after-image of the sound echoing somewhere in the far back of the hall. Mind you, I’m not talking about normal acoustic reverberation; this was a distinct, separate echo coming a full half-second or more after the main sounds on stage. Weird. At any rate, it wasn’t audible from my listening seat, which I suppose is a good thing, but it hardly makes for an acceptable multichannel recording. Most amazing of all is that Sony Classical, being a branch of the company promoting the SACD format would even issue a high-resolution title that sounds this unexceptional.

Hilary Hahn burst upon the scene a few years back as an amazing child prodigy; making her debut recording with, of all things, Bach. I have followed her career with interest since then, admiring her uncanny technique, her instinctive musicality, and her silvery tone. In the last few years, she has been navigating the inevitable post-prodigy backlash and establishing herself as one of the world’s foremost violinists. But there is a difference between innate musicality and hard-won insight, and this disc shows exactly where Hahn is lacking.

First, the more successful of the two performances. Mendelssohn’s ‘Violin Concerto in E minor’ is an old favorite of the solo repertoire. Hahn points out in her liner notes that she has recently returned to the piece, which was one of the first concertos she studied, after putting it out to pasture for a few years. Her conception of the work is currently a very frisky foal indeed, fleetly paced and lively. Such tempos work well enough as a counterbalance to the way tradition has kept slowing the piece down over the years. I think the mercurial speed works best in the finale, where Hahn is impish and aggressive. She points out in her liner notes that her performance is influenced by early 78-r.p.m. recordings of the movement from early in the recording age (1895-1925). The recordings she studied tended to go faster than the average performance of the finale in more recent years. Some will prefer more laid-back finales, but I feel the fast tempo reminds the listener that Mendelssohn’s wit had an edge to it. More Dorothy Parker than Fess Parker, if you will. Hahn’s first movement, though, misses some of the hidden depths of this masterpiece. Hahn seems a little too goal-oriented to be ideal. After all, the voyage is more important than the destination in a work like this. In her silvery tone, fleet speed, and urge to rush on, Hahn reminds me of the Heifetz/Munch recording, which some hold dear, although it largely leaves me cold. At least Hahn and conductor Hugh Wolff are better matched than Heifetz and Munch were on that old RCA recording. Indeed, that performance included one of the classic gaffes of the LP era, near the end of the first movement, when the tense Heifetz launched into the coda at a break-neck tempo, while the affable Munch lagged slightly behind. Realizing he was behind, Munch sped up just as Heifetz slowed back down, wondering where Munch was. It took a few bars of seesaw tempos before the coda stabilized at a different tempo than what either Heifetz or Munch started with. In this recording, Wolff is attentive to Hahn’s speeds and the Oslo Philharmonic is able to keep up most of the time. Their concentration is necessarily focused more on keeping up than on characterizing the music, thus even more nuances are lost.

For a similarly fast (or at least nearly so) performance, I would recommend the great but almost forgotten performance from the 1960’s by Zino Francescatti and George Szell. Francescatti keeps things moving along without missing the moody shadows of Mendelssohn’s invention, and Szell matches him hand-in-glove. Good luck finding a copy, though. It has been out of print for many years, and to my knowledge has shamefully never made an appearance on CD, let alone on a high-resolution format. The classic recording that Sony chose to reissue on SACD was instead the very romantic one by Isaac Stern, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Compared to the present release it is very lush, rather a different world from Hahn’s athleticism – schmaltz instead of sinew. Although the late 1950’s sound of that recording is a bit rough-and-ready, it reveals much more of the orchestral contribution than this release. Another competing SACD option (which I have not yet heard) also comes from Sony (what are they thinking?), namely, Joshua Bell. That recording has drawn attention due to Bell’s decision to use an original cadenza in place of the one in the score, which some authorities now believe to be more the work of the concerto’s dedicatee Ferdinand David than Mendelssohn. One of the most original and probing versions of the work on SACD is the recent Linn Records release with Joseph Swensen as soloist and conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which I had the pleasure of auditioning recently and will be reviewing soon. Among regular CD releases, some may prefer any of the various recordings by Itzhak Perlman, all with his trademark honey-gold sound and buckets of sentiment. Also of note is the sweet performance the young Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded with Herbert von Karajan in the late 1970’s.

The Shostakovich ‘Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor’ proves an uneasy bedfellow for the stylish, poised Mendelssohn. Although Hahn displays a grasp of the music and its implied peril, her performance doesn’t quite have that “living-on-the-edge” sort of feel that made Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s 1990 recording on EMI so vital. At this point in her career, Hahn displays more sheen than grit, thus the Mendelssohn suits her better than the Shostakovich. For more of the dancing-on-the-rim-of-a-volcano flavor that typifies the intensity of the Shostakovich, Salerno-Sonnenberg handles the work as a life-or-death struggle, with fervent support from the London Symphony, conducted by the composer’s son Maxim. Most instructive is the long solo violin cadenza that serves as a bridge from the Passacaglia to the Burlesque finale. Hahn plays the notes and handles them attractively and stylishly. Salerno-Sonnenberg, conversely, isn’t worried in the least about the shape or style of the passage: She plays it like a battle for her very life. That makes all the difference in the world. Where ultimately Hahn’s cadenza is “just” notes, Salerno-Sonnenberg’s reaches out of the speakers and grabs you, refusing to let go.

David Oistrakh’s reading of the Shostakovich with Dimitri Mitropoulos leading the New York Philharmonic in 1955, though monophonic, the sound is tolerable, and was available briefly on CD in Sony’s Masterworks Heritage series before the accountants deleted it. Among recent recordings, there is a version on Capriccio by Vladimir Spivakov with James Conlon and the Gьrzenich Orchestra of Cologne that offers a more refined approach than Salerno-Sonnenberg, but even in regular CD sound, it outdoes this new Sony SACD. I have not heard the recording by Maxim Vengerov on Teldec, but it is cited by many as a favorite for the Shostakovich. Marek Janowski conducts the Oslo Philharmonic in support of Hahn here, and both his direction and Shostakovich’s scoring help the orchestra make a more substantial impact than it did in the Mendelssohn.

In sum, the “star” treatment of the soloist hurts the musical values of this release, such as they are. When that is combined with a difficult recording venue, the final product ends falling far short of the exalted sound heard in the finest high-resolution releases. What we get instead is a sort of distorted flatness, on two planes (three, if you count the after-echo). And considering that the performances themselves are a bit lacking in depth, that leaves us with something like a stack of flat pancakes, stale and not terribly tasty.