Hilary Hahn's Paris

Last year Deutsche Grammophon surprised me by releasing a double 45rpm pressing of American violinist Hilary Hahn’s latest album Paris. For those not familiar, Hahn is one of the violinists of our day, selling out concert dates with major symphony orchestras around the world, and releasing a slew of well received solo albums over the last 25 years. I first heard violinists singing her praises when I was a 16 year old student at Interlochen Arts Camp, and have enjoyed countless recordings by her in the years since, particularly her 2003 Bach Concertos recording with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which has never really left my rotation since I bought it a decade ago.

Flash forward to 2018 when the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (OPRF for short) music director Mikko Franck invited Hahn to do a multi-faceted artist residency. Hahn had the idea that they should also record an album, and the pair came up with a program of works with a unique connection to the city of Paris. The album begins with Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major op. 19, which in 1923 premiered in Paris. It is followed by Poeme op. 25 for violin and orchestra by French composer Ernest Chausson. This one-movement romantic concerto was dedicated to violin virtuoso Eugene Ysaye, who Hahn shares a pedagogical connection to, as Ysaye was the teacher of Jascha Brodsky, Hahn’s own teacher at the Curtis Institute. The final work on the album is the Duex Serenades by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which hold a special connection to Hahn and Franck.

Mikko Franck and the OPRF had been frequent collaborators with Rautavaara in the last decade of his life, with the conductor commissioning a number of works from the composer. Hilary Hahn performed Rautavaara’s Violin Concerto with the OPRF in 2014, after which she asked Franck if the composer would consider writing a new concerto for her to premiere, something Franck discussed with him, but it never materialized. Rautavaara passed away in 2016, and in an extraordinary turn, after the funeral it was revealed that the composer had a near-complete manuscript of the Two Serenades for violin and orchestra. To fill in the missing orchestration composer Kalevi Aho—one of Ratutavaara’s former students— was commissioned by the orchestra. This recording is from the world premiere performance of this work, Rautavaara’s final opus.

The playing on this double disc is superb by both Hahn, and the orchestra. The Prokofiev is technically flawless, with Hahn navigating with finesse and agility the concerto’s complex twists and turns. At the end of the first movement, there is a passage where she must carry out a series of high arpeggios while the woodwinds play sustained chords, and I was absolutely transfixed. The second movement Scherzo was equally as polished, and Hahn does a great job exciting the listener with huge sounding double stops backed up by an energetic performance from the OPRF. Handling all the melodic and dynamic contrasts in this movement is a feat unto itself, and it is entirely successful. Sure, it may not have the raw power as some other great recordings of this piece (the legendary 1954 Oistrakh mono recording), but she plays this with her own voice and excites in other ways, particularly with her virtuosic passage-work (and the playing by the OPRF here is miles ahead of the vintage LSO effort).

The Chausson and the Ratutavaara allow the performers to stretch out melodically, with sensitive interpretations all around. Dynamics, particularly on the Chausson, are well heeded and handled with great care and delicacy, allowing great interplay between soloist and orchestra. I was hypnotized by the beautiful cadenza section of the work and was jolted when the orchestra surprised me with power and authority on the tutti coda. The Ratutavaara is, for obvious reasons, a definitive performance—one that brings out the exquisite melodic lyricism of the work without descending into schmaltz or oversentimentality. I was up to now, ignorant of this wonderful Nordic composer and his work, but these Two Serenades have spurred me to explore more of his musical output, which will definitely satisfy listeners yearning for more romanticism in contemporary classical music.

The sound of this album was highly impressive, especially for a 21st century digital recording by a major label. Orchestral image is clear, and dynamics are well captured. There is perhaps a little more “grunt” from the low strings and percussion than one would likely hear in a true hall setting, but the orchestra overall sounded very natural. Hahn’s violin is a bit ‘spot-lit’, with a more metallic sound than one hears from a natural live violin. I would guess the mic’ing situation involved a bit too much ‘direct’ sound, which results in high frequencies that feel a little too accentuated and bright. You might hear this bright violin sound in a small room or a cramped recital hall, but you would never hear this type of sound in an orchestra hall. It’s a minor oversight in an otherwise excellent recording, but it does stand out compared to golden age “Living Stereo” or Decca “FFSS” records.

The cutting, done by Sidney Meyer at Emil Berliner, is excellent. The Optimal pressing is silent, although visually I did detect some pressing defects such as embedded debris that neither my VPI machine, nor my Degritter ultrasonic could dislodge. Minor quibbles on a non-boutique pressing, DG are not Analogue Productions or MoFi.

Overall though, this is an excellent album by one of today’s most important virtuoso artists, featuring both familiar and new repertoire that should please most listeners. That we can get a major classical release like this with excellent sound on 45rpm vinyl is certainly a blessing, and we can only hope that Deutsche Grammophon continues to improve the quality of their new vinyl releases with this kind of great mastering and cutting.

Michael Johnson is a Phoenix, AZ based oboist and audio writer. He is currently a member of the Tucson Symphony, and performs regularly with the Phoenix Symphony and Arizona Opera. He is a contributing writer at Audiophilia.com and maintains a vinyl-focused youtube channel by the name of PoetryOnPlastic. You can follow his vinyl journey on Instagram at instagram.com/poetryonplastic

Intermediate Listener's picture

I have this recording on CD and love it. I tend to be a bit skeptical of new, digital LPs from major labels. A comparison of the CD/streaming and vinyl sound would be interesting.

RinziRadio's picture

I have yet to dip my toe in the waters of new DG vinyl, but this looks like the excuse I need. Love Hahn (and that Bach recording you mentioned). We are indeed living in a golden era of string players. So happy to see you reviewing classical on this site.

Analog Scott's picture

I got one when it first came out. Still available."This exclusive deluxe set includes 1 CD, 2 LPs and signed limited edition high-quality art print packaged in a beautiful box." https://classical.centerstagestore.com/products/hilary-hahn-mikko-franck...

PeterPani's picture

Hillary Hahn did also direct-to-disc 2018:

It is a wonderful record, too!

bassrome's picture

I, too, love Hahn's recordings having collected nearly all of them. I do take issue with the reviewer's criticism of the low string "grunt". To borrow from Charles Ives, "Stand up and take a good low note like a man." I was impressed with the articulation of the low end and thought the representation to be spot on.

poetryonplastic's picture

What I was trying to articulate is that the low moments felt a bit artificially boosted, above how it would sound in a real hall. In my job I sit next to the double basses and in front of the trombone section (and timpani), and I still don't hear bass notes as accentuated as what I heard on moments of this recording via my Harbeth 30.2 speakers and my Rel t5x sub. It was more of an issue of balance and proportion for me. Just my opinion.

B.Scarpia's picture

Poor you in front of us!

Sitting with the trombones and counting measures, usually just around the corner from the double basses, I was always struck by the way the basses never stood out as they did on much program material from the audience.

BTW, Mr. Fremer, my Interlochen Summer was '63. You?

marechalney's picture

Thanks for giving Hilary her due. At first encounter, I wondered whether she was just another pretty, young face that the record company were so fond of promoting who would disappear in a flash. As you write, she’s gone on to greatness. However, I do think it unfair to compare anyone to David Oistrakh.