An American in Paris
Violin Concerto [UK premiere]
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Hilary Hahn (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes
Reviewed: 28 May, 2009
Venue: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
In recent years, Philharmonic audiences have been subjected to a good deal of contemporary American music. Some of it was, without question, great. Some should never have crossed the street where it was written, never mind the Atlantic. So it was with a little nervous trepidation that we came to hear Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto. The music of this New Yorker is something of a mystery and, having heard this long but totally fascinating concerto, we need to hear more!
In three movements, it is, at times, reminiscent of Holst, with some Samuel Barber thrown in. What it does show is Higdon’s immense knowledge of the orchestra and how it can be used. She chooses a large ensemble with multiple percussion – a section she works hard throughout. Her Violin Concerto is melodic, thoughtful, exciting and exhilarating. The opening movement initiates a series of short conversations between soloist and orchestra principals and is incessant, always pushing ahead with interweaving lines added to bewitch. At the outset – and at the conclusion – the violin is used high in its register, an almost pining sound to seek-out friends somewhere.
It was the playing of Hilary Hahn, back in Liverpool after her incredible Tchaikovsky performance in November, which stole the show: the cadenza in the opening movement was fiery, the finale – with its spiky, Bartók-like rhythms – breathtaking. The real fascination though is the slow movement, a merging of chaconnes – pieces built on the same harmonic progression – except here there are several moving at once, which kept listeners busy!
A grand performance of Elgar’s First Symphony closed the concert. This was Vasily Petrenko’s last appearance this season with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – and he exited with some musical fireworks. The Orchestra donned its mantle of, possibly, the expert interpreter of English music and it worked even if it was a breathless performance, less than rousing, but the Adagio was quite sublime.
The concert opened with Gershwin’s An American in Paris. It could be argued this was a flippant ‘overture’, a rather gauche view of 1920s’ Paris . But listen to the thematic development, hear the orchestral soloists – oboe, flute, violin and percussionists in particular – and then savour Petrenko’s slinky, laid-back interpretation of the central part of this piece and most would agree it is a masterpiece.
- Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 1 June at 7 p.m.