cd reviews

"Schoenberg, Sibelius: Violin Concertos," Hilary Hahn,

Swedish Radio Symphony

Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (Deutsche Grammophon)

Arnold Schoenberg's violin concerto is so resistant to easy listening that Jascha Heifetz turned it down after brisk perusal and the Israel Philharmonic was hit by a subscriber walkout when that orchestra put it on in 1971.

It still grates the ear more than ingratiating it, even in a performance as rare and winning as Hilary Hahn's, full of youthful mood swings and romantic delusions. The middle movement comes over sensual and sumptuous, almost neo-tonal, and if the outer themes are angry -- well, this was the 1930s, and Schoenberg was a penniless exile in Hollywood.

The Sibelius concerto, popularized by Heifetz around that time, has been a winner ever since with female soloists -- Ginette Neveu, Ida Haendel, Viktoria Mullova, Tasmin Little. It sounds facile by comparison with the Schoenberg, for all the heat of Hahn's advocacy.

Her tone has such engaging depth you wonder at times if she's playing viola, and her virtuosity is agreeably unflashy. I warmed to her eloquence more on second hearing, and more still on third. This is definitely a record to live with.



"Bach: The Art of Fugue," Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Deutsche Grammophon)

The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is a resourceful and dedicated pioneer of new music who brings a contemporary dimension to the classics he performs. Not for him the anorexic harpsichords of the 18th century. He plays Bach on a full-blooded concert grand and delivers a rhythmic vitality that is often found wanting in nit-picking "authentic" accounts. Working from a facsimile of Bach's original manuscript, he applies what he describes as "alchemical" insights to the score.

That's a daring claim to make, and its credibility runs out somewhere around the eighth Contrapunctus, when Aimard starts to weary the ear with sameness of weight and lack of color. Like Glenn Gould, he stops dead in mid-fugue at the last note Bach wrote. Unlike Gould, he adds little to the sum of musical experience.



To hear samples, call 612-673-9050 and press 1600 for the first Contrapunctus, 1601 for the eighth Contrapunctus and 1602 for the 14th Contrapunctus.