Violinist Hahn Softens Schoenberg's Angularity

(Deutsche Grammophon - Deutsche Grammophon)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

Somebody forgot to tell the violinist Hilary Hahn that Schoenberg is ugly.

The music of Arnold Schoenberg, of course, isn't ugly at all; in fact, he's one of the last of the romantics. And that's exactly how Hahn understands him. Her new recording of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto on Deutsche Grammophon, released last month, shows no traces of the spiky, unpleasant angularity that represents Schoenberg in the popular consciousness. And this is quite a feat, since the concerto is one of the more technically difficult pieces to play in the repertory.

Hahn used to strike me as a somewhat wooden, obedient player: the paradigm of the young prodigy. In this week's program with the National Symphony Orchestra, she offers the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1, which she has also recorded -- the kind of virtuosic but rather empty fireworks piece that she seemed to me well suited for. It's interesting that her tone, which had seemed slightly thin, blossoms in the Schoenberg. The density of the score can make the piece sound clotted, but on this recording, it sings. All of that ferocious virtuosity is harnessed here in the service of a larger, expressive purpose.

Hahn's sensibility dovetails well with that of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra on this recording. He, too, is someone who focuses expressivity through a quality of analytic intellectualism. Both musicians are smart enough not to get tied in knots by Schoenberg's score, and to see through it to the composer's inner romantic.

To sweeten the pill for non-initiates, Hahn pairs Schoenberg with Sibelius -- a composer who, although stylistically different, was Schoenberg's contemporary and who, like him, has been maligned and more recently accepted by a broader posterity. If Schoenberg's emotion is often concealed, Sibelius's is heart-on-the-sleeve. Hahn's matter-of-fact approach helps tone it down and make it an ideal pendant to the Schoenberg on a very fine recording.

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