For her Auckland concert with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gemma New, superstar violinist Hilary Hahn chose to feature Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major, and it proved an extremely compelling vehicle for her astounding technical and musical talents. Thankfully, this was sandwiched between orchestral performances of uncommon insight from New and the orchestra.

Hilary Hahn
© OJ Slaughter

The opening piece was Lahar, a work from Kiwi composer John Rimmer adapted from the final sections of his 1976 The Ring of Fire. A "lahar" is a mudflow occurring during a volcanic eruption, and one immediately heard this eruption as the piece opened with titanic chords. Descending figures in the wind and tuned percussion suggested the speedy descent of the mid down the volcano’s side. A final piccolo lament closes the piece, the composer’s response to hearing news of an earthquake in Guatemala during the period of composition.

Prokofiev’s concerto is one of the last works the composer penned before leaving Russia, a work less spiky than much of his output from around that period. Hahn was a revelation, commanding as she did total precision in all aspects of the performance. This shouldn’t suggest anything clinical about the interpretation, and indeed, it was quite an amazing sequence of different colours that Hahn was able to draw from her violin. She began with a tranquil rendering of the sweet opening theme, dreamy legato floating over the orchestral texture. The second theme was more robust, with compelling verve in its folk-like rhythms. The following Scherzo was a total contrast, with Hahn suddenly exhibiting some astonishing ferocity, making it a terrifying thing indeed. The suddenly harsh, slashing chords of this movement maintained their shock value, and New brought the orchestra along in intense dialogue with the soloist. Hahn’s lush tone and affectionate shaping of the opening theme of the last movement convinced one that this angular theme was a melody of the highest beauty imaginable. She effortlessly weaved between extroverted handling of the key melodies and allowing the orchestra space to shine in her more accompanying figures. This all lead to a final apotheosis of exquisite lyricism to cap off this astonishing performance.

In her pre-concert remarks, New made it clear she sees Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor as no mere bombast designed to celebrate the Revolution and thus assuage Stalin, but more as a disguised, subversive expression of the composer’s loneliness and fear of the hostile environment in which he lived and worked. It was certainly one of the most intense performances of Shostakovich’s music that has been heard in this city in recent years. This account of the first movement was not as sensationalist as some others but more subdued in its intensity, with a real sense of anguish in those opening ascending intervals. The strings responded wonderfully to New’s direction, with a concentration of tone that portrayed angst effectively. New commanded the movement’s tempo changes organically, with no awkward gear-shifts to be heard.

The bucolic Allegretto second movement felt even more Mahlerian than usual and for once didn’t suffer from that comparison. Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen contributed a lovely pastoral violin solo. Throughout, New had superb control of the orchestra, giving the movement a rubato ebb and flow that always sounded perfectly natural. Her direction continued to be enthralling in a grief-stricken account of the Adagio, strings responding eloquently once again, emotion surging through their long phrases. A brief moment of repose in the duet between flute and harp was particularly noticeable, and the woodwind laments throughout this movement were all intensely focused. Finally, the orchestra and New brought much substance to the rhetorical moments of the finale that can risk sounding empty in other hands. The final moments were desperate, seemingly grasping for a triumph that was just out of reach.