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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