Though her music sounds nothing like that of Leonard Bernstein, Jennifer Higdon has the same ability to produce scores that manage to be direct, imaginative, and hugely entertaining. Her Violin Concerto, recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize, is just the latest example of her talents. The essential character of the first movement reminded me of the Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber in its lyricism, its serenity. But very much unlike Barber, who sustains the mood over the course of two movements, Higdon, like a well schooled postmodernist, gives us a series of striking contrasts and jack-in-the-box surprises. The concerto opens, rather ingenuously, with an exposed violin line accompanied by knitting needles played on crotales and glockenspiel, then moves on to a series of contrasting passages that range from playful and teasing, to downright ferocious. The cadenza is especially dramatic and demanding, and Hahn plays it in breathtaking fashion. The second movement demonstrates Higdonís ability to craft memorable tunes, though here the mood is subdued, magical, and beautifully sustained. The last movement is an exercise in rhythmically complex (and sometimes jazzy) perpetual motion, and bracing in its intensity and virtuosity. Hahn plays this demanding score with poise and utter conviction, as if it was written for her -- which of course it was.
Discussing her changing attitudes toward the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Hahn says, ďWhen I finally returned to the Tchaikovsky, I was struck by the differences in the way I perceived the piece. In my teens, it had been an imposing mountain of a concerto, but now it seemed more multi-faceted and finely nuanced, more like character in literature: impulsive, yet thoughtful, fiery yet vulnerable, romantic yet almost classical in its gestures.Ē One canít fault Hahnís thoughtfulness here; young as she is, she is one of our most intellectual virtuosos. However, as good as this approach sounds in theory, the results prove disappointing. The sense of restraint and sweetness that Hahn finds in the first movement doesnít fit easily or comfortably with the more dramatic passages, and she constantly has to accelerate to get the music back up to speed. Hot-blooded Russian that he is, Petrenko never misses an opportunity to hurtle forward; and in general, he seems impatient with Hahnís dawdling. The second movement follows suit: it is very inward, vulnerable, and (alas) a little dull. The finale, however, is appropriately fiery and exhilarating. Here at least Hahn holds nothing back.
This recording will do well for the violinistís many fans, and also for those who have been hankering for a revisionist Tchaikovsky Concerto. Still, compared to the live version by Kyung-Wha Chung with Carlo Maria Guilini leading the Berlin Philharmonic, this performance sounds emotionally undernourished. The engaging concerto by Higdon is reason enough to purchase this CD. And who knows, you might like Hahnís Tchaikovsky more than I did. Very well balanced sound too.