This wonderful CD slipped by me last year, but it did not slip by the Grammy voters, who named it Best Solo Instrumental Performance with Ensemble. Since the classical beat isn't particularly now-oriented, I want to spread the word to anyone who, like me, might have been preoccupied with other matters at the time.
The Sibelius concerto is one of our most popular works for this instrument, but the Schoenberg is seldom played, and widely considered too "thorny" for mainstream acceptance by a broader audience. On the evidence of this performance, Hilary Hahn disagrees with that assessment, and she and conductor Salonen make it sound more like it belongs in the mainstream than any previous performance off it I can recall. They turn the often spiky opening movement, with its dense, almost fragmentary themes, into a flowing, compelling musical narrative. The somewhat less daunting writing of the rest of the concerto is splendidly realized. Salonen's insightful phrasing of the orchestral writing complements Hahn's uniquely lyrical conception perfectly.
There are of course many fine recordings of the Sibelius concerto, but I would place this one at the very top level. I have seen a number of comments characterizing this performance with words like "cool" and even "glacial," but I find such comments reductive and ultimately unhelpful. Hahn's elegantly silken tone — surely as instantly recognizable as any violinist's today — and measured phrasing are indeed less romantically fervent than many competitors. But I would argue that her conception is Sibelian to the core, emphasizing the work's deep spirituality rather than its more superficial romanticism. Here again, Salonen and the Swedish orchestra are perfectly in step, conceptually and in execution.
This Spring I went to a Hahn recital in which she was accompanied by another favorite artist, pianist Valentina Lisitsa — the first time I've heard this marvelous violinist live. That wonderful Sunday afternoon confirmed what I had been thinking after hearing several of her recordings. There is no doubt that Hilary Hahn belongs right at the top of the current group of violin virtuosos. I sometimes play silly association games with artists, and one of them is something like "which old guy does the new guy sound like?" Let's say Vengerov makes me think of Heifetz, and Shaham evokes Stern. The more I listen to Hahn, the more I'm reminded of my all-time favorite violinist, David Oistrakh. This comparison is less about sound per se — although both are supreme technicians with flawless intonation -- than about their ability to penetrate to the heart of any composition and capture its essence.
A quick count of my shelves reveals around a dozen other Sibelius recordings, though only one of the Schoenberg. No matter — this fine-sounding one is essential, to me and, I would say, to any lover of transcendent violin artistry.