Tag Archives: concertos

Vaughan Williams: England’s greatest composer

On this day 50 years ago the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams died, ending a creative career that had lasted more than 60 years, and is to my mind the single greatest body of work by any English composer.

I admire Britten, Elgar and Holst, Purcell, Tallis and Byrd, but Vaughan Williams seems to me more emblematic of the sound of his country’s native music, and I can’t think of a piece of his I don’t like.

I first became aware of him as more than the composer of For All the Saints when I had to sing in a college performance of Dona Nobis Pacem, his cantata based on the Civil War poems of Walt Whitman. I was stunned by how masterful and beautiful this piece was, and parts of it have remained in my memory since that time, particularly Reconciliation, with its lovely setting of Whitman’s lines: Word over all/Beautiful as the sky.

I also love Vaughan Williams’ chamber music, the Phantasy Quintet especially, and many of his songs; one of my very favorite of these is Hands, Eyes, Heart, written at the very end of the composer’s life, when he was in his early 80s. It’s an exquisite song, richly harmonized and set to a moving text by his second wife, Ursula.

It’s the symphonies that are getting more attention these days, and they are marvelous works. A recent frequent visitor to my ears has been the Third Symphony, the Pastoral, with its reminiscences of World War I in the trumpet calls and a kind of strong modal melody unique to this composer. Where others have used this same kind of material, it gets run through a fancier scrim, but Vaughan Williams prefers to paint it straight and proud, and it’s music that grows on you.

I’ve also heard a ravishing section or two from his opera The Poisoned Kiss, and I’m fond of the oboe and tuba concerti, as well as Flos Campi and of course, the Tallis fantasia and The Lark Ascending.

A film about Vaughan Williams’ life and art was released earlier this year, I think, and I’ve been meaning to check it out. The central focus of the film apparently is the effect on his art that the composer gained from his service in World War I, which included stretcher-bearing and ambulance driving; that might not seem like a big deal, but Vaughan Williams was in his early 40s when the war began and could easily have turned the other way and let the younger generation do its bit.

I think that says good things about the kind of person he was, and it’s my hope that Vaughan Williams will one day be recognized as the finest of his country’s composers, one whose art had a great deal to say to his audiences and to ours,

Here is Janine Jansen playing The Lark Ascending (it’s in two parts):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbcuteYm-EA&hl=en&fs=1]

Part II:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsOOQB0uA5Q&hl=en&fs=1]

Hahn’s Schoenberg an important event

There aren’t many recordings of the Violin Concerto of Arnold Schoenberg — Zvi Zeitlin and Pierre Amoyal have done it — so the disc of the concerto released this spring by the American violinist Hilary Hahn with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is something of a major event.

And with good reason: This is as compelling a performance of this very difficult work as you can expect to hear anywhere.

The primary reason for that is that Schoenberg, unlike so many of the dodecaphonists who followed in his wake, is at heart a 19th-century heart-on-sleeve Romantic composer, and what you hear in this reading of the work is a violinist who understands that. This is a 12-tone concerto, but it speaks the emotional language of the great tonal masterworks that preceded it, and needs to be interpreted that way.
Hahn has always been an adventurous violinist.

How many other young players would release discs of concertos by Spohr and Paganini, or early on commission a new American work to pair with a beautiful reading of the Barber concerto? (Having interviewed her 10 or so years ago, I can testify to how smart she is, and how dedicated and serious she is about her craft.)

My favorite performances of hers on record have been her reading of the Bernstein Serenade, a first-rate piece for which she makes an eloquent case, and the Shostakovich First Concerto, which seemed to engage all parts of her performing personality. I may have to add the Schoenberg to that list, because she has taken on the challenge of the work and made it her own.

Listen, for instance, to what she makes of the difficult cadenza towards the end of the third movement. Its leaps and skitters are precise and in tune, but the best part of it is the quality of brooding expectancy Hahn brings to the music. It pulls the listener in, eager for what happens next.

Or listen to how she opens the second movement, singing the initial passages with a perfect clarity that sits beautifully on top of the delicate orchestral accompaniment. Throughout this performance her magnificent technical mastery is combined with an interpretive conception that has been clearly thought out and that makes splendid use of Schoenberg’s narrative line.

The Swedish RSO under Salonen couldn’t be better, either. Every bit of orchestral color in Schoenberg’s score is beautifully realized, and fosters new respect for the composer’s ability at orchestration. There is a wonderful swinging quality in the middle of the first movement in which Schoenberg appears to be referencing jazz styles — at least it sounds that way to me — and the orchestra shimmies coolly, and precisely, along as Hahn jumps in and out.

Hahn writes in an essay for this Deutsche Grammophon disc that work on the Schoenberg gave her new insight into the D minor concerto of Jean Sibelius, also recorded here. She does a beautiful job with this work as well, stressing its epic qualities with choices such as a very deliberate tempo just before the coda of the first movement. As with the Schoenberg, she’s fully up to the technical hurdles of the Sibelius, which are formidable as well.

Although I admired this reading of the work, and find it an excellent companion to the Schoenberg, I’m partial to a more overtly Romantic interpretation, such as you find in the recording by Gil Shaham. There’s something just a little reserved about Hahn’s performance that kept me from complete absorption.

With her newest recording, Hilary Hahn has made not just a wonderful record, but an important one. It’s not likely we’ll see great numbers of other violinists following in her wake with bids to play and record this thorny masterwork, so this performance could be a benchmark for players and listeners for years to come.

It’s always exciting as a journalist to see an artist with great promise grow and master new challenges, and the Schoenberg Violin Concerto is absolutely one of those for Hilary Hahn. She deserves our respect and thanks for championing this seminal work.