Classical Album of the Week: Violinist Hilary Hahn's Dream Program Comes Together With 'Paris'
May 17, 2021. Recorded before the 2020 shutdown, and released with the end of the pandemic almost in sight, Hilary Hahn’s album Paris reminds us of the power of music to uplift and connect us. The three works on the album span centuries and emotions, with Sergei Prokofiev’s lively and vibrant 1st violin concerto from 1917, a luscious Poeme by Ernest Chausson from 1896, and the 2019 posthumous world premiere of Deux Serenades, the last work written by the prolific Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.
“It’s really my dream program for this collaboration,” says Hahn, a multiple Grammy winner, known for her virtuosity and innovative projects and collaborations. Entering the Curtis Institute of Music when she was 10 years old, she soon began performing with ensembles, including the Baltimore Symphony, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and signed her first recording deal at 16. The album Paris arose from her 2018-2019 residency with the Paris-based Orchestre Philharmonie de Radio France (OPRF), as part of Music Director Mikko Franck’s tenure.
Her relationship with the OPRF and Franck goes back years, and is also where the story of Rautavaara’s Deux Serenades begins.
In 2014, after performing Rautavaara’s violin concerto with Franck and the OPRF, Hahn asked Franck whether Rautavaara would write a work for them. Franck raised the idea with the composer, who was a good friend and a fellow Finn. Rautavaara was interested, but died in 2016, without ever delivering any music to them.
Only after Rautavaara's funeral did Franck learn that his friend had nearly finished a set of two serenades. The violin part was complete; the last orchestral part of the second serenade was sketched in piano format. Franck commissioned composer Kalevi Aho, who was a former student of Rautavaara’s, to complete the orchestration.
The emotional premiere took place on February 2019. It was, Hahn says, “like receiving a letter from beyond and reading it out loud.”
Afterwards, Hahn and Franck were eager to record it. “We wanted to make sure the Rautavaara would have as global an audience as possible, and we would really do right by it, as far as how much we documented that premiere, because it's really important to document those things, and this one in particular is his final work.”
The order of the works on the album, with Chausson and Prokofiev leading to the Rautavaara, just felt right to Hahn as she listened, after recording them. "This is the order that reflected, for me, the emotional experience," she says. "It's like traveling through the musical landscape."
Of Prokofiev, Hilary says, “He was such a genius. When he writes for any instrument, he seems to know what it feels like to play that instrument."
"There are moments where the violinist is really struggling to be heard, and I always lean into that struggle, because it’s more existential than just balances. At that moment, that is actually part of the story. And then there are other points at which the musicality really pushes you to your limits in how delicately you can play, and that sense of suspending the bow is also part of the emotional impact.”
And why call the album Paris?
“When all was said and done, and the album was complete, I looked at it and realized that everything pointed back to Paris,” says Hahn. “The orchestra's Parisian; it came out of my Parisian artist residency. Coincidentally, all the pieces were either world premiered or significantly premiered in Paris.”
Chausson was Parisian, and while his Poeme was not premiered in Paris, its first performance there, says Hahn, “put him on the map as a composer, and it’s one of his most significant works." And finally, she says, laughing, “My violin is Parisian! So there you have it."
Chausson: Poeme for Violin and Orchestra
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1
Rautavaara: Deux Serenades for violin and orchestra