Review: Paganini – Violin Concerto No. 1 / Hahn


Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6

Hilary Hahn is making history as we speak: this classical music recording puts her among the top violinists in the world.

An astonishing performance unlike any existing one, especially with regard to form, intonation and musical insight of the violinist.

Hilary’s lyrical personality is heard throughout the performance, right from the beginning. Compare her entrance (some 3 minutes into the first movement, after an introduction from the orchestra) to Salvatore Accardo’s:

Soloist’s entrance, 1st movement

Hilary Hahn

Salvatore Accardo

Starting with the first note and ending with the last, Hilary does not for a second lose her preciseness of pitch. The difficult passages are never rushed; on the contrary – she plays out every single note while retaining the virtuosity: the fastest and most difficult passages are not slower than they are played by other ‘greats’, but are much more precise. That includes all the double stops – the clarity and intonation cleanness of which Hilary is a champion at, the olympic-style finger leaps – every single note in tune, the hurricane arpeggios, etc.

Having said that, one might think that perhaps while Hilary pays so much attention to details, she might lack the musical depth and, considering the large forms found in the concerto, the insight to encompass each movement as a whole. And this is where the intuition would indeed be misleading: she feels through every melody, every passage. Every note expresses a wide range of emotions.

Many a so-called classical musician these days are actually not. The musical institutions today primarily train students to be one of the three: either performers or theoreticians or composers. Most of them do not turn out to be fully developed musicians. The ones from the theoretic faculty can’t really perform anything anymore, while most of the graduate performers don’t really understand what they are playing. And, most unfortunately, many composers are not musicians in any sense at all.

If you are a performer, they reckon, you should specialise in just that – performing. And this is how we get hundreds, thousands of graduate pianists, violinists, flutists, etc., who are all virtuosi, and most of whom we will never hear about, because they aren’t real musicians.

But this is not the case here.

Hilary Hahn is a real musician in the full sense of the word. Listen to the expressive pauses before the dramatic notes, the extra sustaining at the end of phrases, the miniature improvisations coming from inside.

But to really understand how accomplished a classical musician she is, you will have to listen to the whole concerto.

It should be noted that her dynamic range, although musically unified throughout, is lacking power, and this is evident at times when more energy is definitely required.

The constant and unchanging vibrato is very balanced. A little bit more and it would start to be irritating. A little bit less, and there would not be enough. The occasional senza vibrato places are little gems, right where they should be.

It is interesting, that Hilary’s interpretation of the concerto, which is said to be untraditional in many respects, closely resembles Gil Shaham’s. Many of the ‘innovations’, again – with regard to interpretation, and that includes bowings, tempi and dynamics, are not Hilary’s, but were pioneered by Gil Shaham. What’s more, speaking again about intonation, Gil Shaham’s is the only coming even close to Hilary’s.

The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra with conductor Eiji Oue have done a good job. He keeps the orchestra together and mostly balanced (the cymbals might have been a bit quieter in the opening theme). The orchestra could be more on time at times, and, as far as the recording itself goes, the mastering could have been better done (EQ and separation are issues – this is a classical music recording, after all). But the soloist is not excessively covered by the orchestra, which happens so often nowadays, and that is much more important in this work.

One might ask: how would Hilary’s performance theoretically differ from Paganini’s own? The answer is simple: very much so. Leaving aside the individuality and personal expressiveness of the artists, there are several obvious musical and historical facts worth pointing out.

Firstly, the concerto was originally written in E-flat major, with the solo violin tuned up a semitone. Paganini felt that the violin could act as a transposing instrument. Such a view was not shared by his successors, however, and the concerto was later transposed to D major. A violin tuned up even a semitone would sound quite different, and the delivery would be more intense, but that could well have been just the intention.

Secondly, the modern ear is so used to pitch-perfect sound in the modern equal-temperament system of tuning (mostly due to the rapid advance of electronic musical devices), that a note even slightly out of tune is frowned upon like at no time before in history. This can be confirmed by listening to recordings from the beginning of the 20th century, where the “out-of-tune-ness threshold” is surprisingly lower. One could say that instrumentalists then played terribly out of tune by today’s standards. (For the violinist this means that the virtuosic passages are much more difficult to perfect intonation-wise, that is, to satisfy today’s audience, and which Hilary more than succeeds in.)

Thirdly, Paganini had the original fingerboard of his violin replaced with a larger one; he also adopted a flatter bridge, which allowed the simultaneous production of triple and perhaps quadruple stops. In present time recordings this means that the grace-note sound of the lower notes in triple and quadruple stops is not what was intended.

Fourthly, the “unimaginative repetitions”, quoting Grove, were not quite that at the time of Paganini. Every repeat gave a chance to improvise, to display, to awe the audience. And although Hilary hints at the occasional extra note from herself, these are merely expressive additions and not real improvisations, which Paganini would have actually approved of.

Historically, this violin concerto, written in 1816, turned out to be an inspiration for many classical music composers, especially for those who had heard Paganini’s live performances.

I do not support the following quote – “In musical terms the Paganini Concerto #1 is negligible at best” – it is not. Most of Paganini’s melodies are unmistakably his own. The method of writing cyclic (monothematic) movements is employed in this opus long before Franck made an official point of it. Other tools used in the composition also have far fetching consequences.

Thematic comparison

1st movement – Allegro maestoso

2nd movement – Adagio

Also compare the unexpected minor Tutti, which follows the major cadence, with the same in Schubert’s 8th Symphony, written six years after Paganini wrote his concerto:

By the way, here is another one from the same pieces...

Thematic comparison

Niccolò Paganini – Violin Concerto

Franz Schubert – Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished”


Going on with cyclic theme development:

Thematic comparison

1st movement – Allegro maestoso

3rd movement – Rondo: Allegro spiritoso

Another thematic comparison, more distant:

Thematic comparison

Niccolò Paganini – Violin Concerto

Sergei Rachmaninoff – Elegie, Op. 3, No. 1 (1892)

On with the concerto, ending the first movement, Hilary chooses a slightly shortened version of a cadenza by Sauret, which is quite out of place in the concerto anyway, but is nevertheless performed very well. The ending is a little bit too weak for a 17-minute movement. In any case, Hilary did well to choose this cadenza, as it is the one played by most well-known violinists, and this is what the audience is expecting if just to compare the execution.

All of the three movements are played “in one breath”, in one style, in very well chosen tempi and with a hint of mannerism, though the latter of which Paganini himself probably wouldn’t have much shown.

There is much more to discover in Paganini – in his music, in this concerto, and especially in this recording. Just listen to these ethereal double (!) harmonics... Hilary Hahn outplays everyone else:

3rd movement

Hilary Hahn

Leonid Kogan almost every part of the concerto...

3rd movement

Hilary Hahn

Itzhak Perlman

...but you’ll have to go to her concert and hear her live to really really appreciate the legend.


[Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1; Spohr: Violin Concerto No. 8]

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Blogger Steven said...

Thank you for a very insightful discussion of the concerto and Hahn's playing. Not really a fan of Paganini, but I'll seek out the full recording anyway. You may have made a convert.

14 August 2007 00:10  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please keep up the blog - I look forward to reading your views on a range of composers and performers.
Frank in Oz

14 August 2007 13:36  
Anonymous Richard said...

Thank you for this page. There is very little room for discussion - you are correct, as proven by your comparisons. However, I heard a solo recital of Hahn's in Jordan Hall in Boston a few years ago. It was as if played by a computer, not a bit of original insight or compelling expression. Paganini survives robotic playing infinitely better than Bach or Mozart. Based on this recording and on my experience at her recital, she appears to have a single goal in mind: perfection. But, is that the point of music?

03 September 2007 19:01  
Blogger Stellamar said...

Paganini's concertos are my favorites of all time. Hahn's interpretation is hauntingly beautiful and masterfully done. She is a great performer!!!
Keep the blog please!
Thank you very much for a great review.

02 November 2007 21:28  
Blogger William said...

I am very impressed by your criticisms and comparisons. Write on!

15 November 2007 20:42  
Anonymous Foresthawk said...

I enjoy Hillary's live performances every chance I can, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. But that speed comes at a heavy price. It forces her to sacrifice from her sound a measurable amount of feeling and emotion. While it can be argued perhaps that Joshua Bell could stand to use more vibrato in most cases, I have to say that I find his overall approach much more satisfying.

25 November 2007 10:27  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very enlightening commentaries! How about something on my current preoccupation, Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations"? It's one of his most wonderful works yet not well known by the general public. You could help evangelize for it.

02 February 2008 18:35  
Blogger Mike said...

This post has been removed by the author.

13 April 2008 21:34  
Anonymous carlos said...

hi! excellent reviews there. but are you gona stop writing? please keep on! i would like to help in any way.

23 April 2008 19:57  
Anonymous David Miller said...

This article is AMAZING! I love Beethoven's moonlight sonata, and especially any new insights into the master's work. Please keep this stuff coming!

30 May 2008 15:31  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you have an absolutely wonderful blog! I love your review of Hilary. As a female violinist of course I rejoice in her success and your critique of her,however I have to wonder if you considered the remarkable Francescatti recording of Paganini. He is often forgotten but was quite formidable, especially when it came to Paganini. His harmonics too, had crystal like clarity and in the most difficult of passages he nailed them with out failure or without losing speed. You can note this in his Bazzini recording. While Kogan was always noted for his Paganini and yes, I thought he was wonderful I thought Francescatti was the true Paganini "specialist", warm where it needed to be and spittin' fire and brimstone when applicable.
As for Hilary-it has been remarkable to listen to her journey. She has amazing attention to detail--she is "the violinist's violinist." I really enjoyed your comparison/contrast of other violinist who have recorded Paganini Concerto Number 1..just the sort of thing a violin junky thrives on!

20 November 2008 02:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I learn so much from this blog! Please keep writing! You put so much effort into these post, and I just want you to know that it is read (and listened to!) and greatly appreciated.

05 January 2009 10:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

25 years earlier: Mozart – Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major (1775)

Could you tell me "K"????

08 January 2009 14:48  
Blogger Roni said...

Mozart's Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major is K. 189g / 282

08 January 2009 17:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice blog,

By the way,here's my version of the dies irae of Mozart:

23 February 2009 17:28  

What a wonderful blog!

16 April 2009 22:27  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful reading.

We have just started the first South Asian / Indian Classical Music niche store at - there really was no consolidated amazon / iTunes affiliate store in that important niche before us.

14 May 2009 01:27  
Blogger R said...

I must agree Hilary Hahn outplays everyone else, her notes are much more precise and exacting within the time signature and it’s quite noticeable. Gracefulness where Gracefulness are required, Strictness where Strictness are required, Fluidness where Fluidness are required and Tightness where Tightness are required. I know this might kind of sound strange but that’s how I see note placement and execution.

21 May 2009 21:03  
Anonymous Tunisia Musicien said...

PLEASE keep writing !!!
Thank you!! :)

05 June 2009 02:53  
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28 July 2009 18:45  
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30 July 2009 17:02  
Blogger piono lessons said...

I really enjoyed this and hope to see more soon.

22 August 2009 10:15  
Blogger moleskinebold said...

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30 September 2009 15:21  

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