Higdon & Tchaikovsky: Violin Concertos

Higdon, Tchaikovsky
Violin Concertos
Hilary Hahn (violin); Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
Catalogue Number:
DG 477 8777
BBC Music Magazine

Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto, written for and premiered by Hilary Hahn in 2009, opens playfully with solo violin harmonics, followed by some typically ethereal percussion effects, one of the composer’s fingerprints.

Eventually a more gutsy G-string melody emerges which becomes the main motivic focus of the movement. Following its transformations is easy, thanks to Higdon’s exquisite ear for orchestral balance and the supremely violinistic solo part, played with consummate conviction and accuracy by Hahn.

The aptly named second movement, ‘Chaconi’, is based on a series of repeated chord progressions, through which the soloist weaves energetic filigrees. Its opening chorales have an early 20th-century English flavour about them (Holst, Vaughan Williams).

The short final movement, more or less a perpetuum mobile, was inspired by the fantasy of Hilary Hahn running her way to an Olympic medal; a prophecy of sorts, as this work in fact won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

Like Higdon’s, Tchaikovsky’s Concerto is mostly about the violin itself, its capacity for swooning lyricism and uninhibited virtuosity exploited to the hilt. Hahn, however, seems intent on proving otherwise, with a rather self-consciously Classical approach built on steady tempos and little rubato (most conspicuously in the first movement), portamentos so discreet as to be almost inaudible, and a narrow palette of tone colour.

No longer music that ‘stinks to the ear’ (Hanslick’s infamous phrase), but somewhat denuded of earthiness and energy in the process. Among Hahn’s contemporaries, Vadim Gluzman combines an equally pure tone with a warmer, more robust approach. 

In both works Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO stick to Hahn like glue, a fact brilliantly revealed by the close, detailed, recording. Howard Goldstein

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