Hilary Hahn makes the strings sing

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
November 7, 2006

Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1; Spohr: Violin Concerto No. 8--Hilary Hahn, violin; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Eiji Oue (Deutsche Grammophon 718802)

St. Paul, Minn. — It seems that a new trend in recordings has emerged lately, if two can be considered a trend! Recently, Joshua Bell released "Voice of the Violin," featuring violin arrangements of arias and other vocal music. Hot on the heels of that CD is one where "Hilary Hahn Gets Vocal." That's the slogan of a sticker campaign to spread the word about the connection between the voice and the violin in classical music.

The slogan also promotes Hahn's new recording, which explores the connection between the voice and violin. It features the Violin Concerto No. 1 by the great Italian virtuoso Nicolo Paganini and the Violin Concerto No. 8 by German violinist and composer Louis Spohr. Both pieces were inspired by the bel canto singing style popular in the 19th century.

Since she was a child, Hilary Hahn has been intrigued by the concept of the violin as a voice. Not only is the violin anchored against the throat, symbolically extending its player's voice, but the two instruments share tonal similarities and emotional depth. Throughout her training, she says her teachers have urged her to look to singers for musical inspiration and to think of each bowed note as a syllable being sung. In this new release, Hahn makes it clear she did absorb those lessons.

In the bold entrance of Louis Spohr's Violin Concerto No. 8, conductor Eiji Oue introduces us to the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. They quickly hush, allowing Hahn to sing her way into the melody with her violin. Spohr had already composed several operas by the time he finished this concerto. Being a good businessman too, he hoped to capitalize on the Italian taste for opera in the early 19th century.

Spohr subtitled this piece "In modo di scena cantante," which means "In the style of a vocal scene." In this performance, Hahn's sweet, luxurious tone can compete with just about any great singer and her exquisite phrasing pulls us further into the concerto's dramatic story.

At about the time Spohr wrote that concerto, Nicolo Paganini found himself quite impressed by a popular young opera composer named Gioacchino Rossini. Paganini's compositional style took on a similar flair. His Violin Concerto No. 1 is his most elaborate and his most famous concerto.

He sets the scene with a long orchestral passage, and then he unleashes the violin's madness in some dazzling pyrotechnics. Hilary Hahn offers a thrilling, yet thoughtful performance as she sweeps her way through multiple stops, single harmonics and ricochet bowing.

Paganini and Louis Spohr met at least twice during their travels as violin virtuosos. Once, after hearing Spohr in concert, Paganini described him as "the finest singer on his instrument." On this new release, Hilary Hahn carries on that fine "singing" tradition. She also achieves her goal of introducing these concertos to a new generation. To those who may already know these works, she offers a few new insights from the perspective of a performer who's in touch with her instrument's voice.

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