When violinists turn to the works of Niccolò Paganini, it's usually with one thing in mind: fireworks. While Hilary Hahn
's recording of Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1 does ignite in all the right places, it's also clear that there's something more on her agenda than just showing off. In fact, it's Hahn's astonishingly fine technique that allows her to go beyond virtuosity as a mechanical bag of tricks -- rather, to use virtuosity as one tool among many in this supremely confident and expressive performance. Few of the competing versions of this concerto succeed so well in highlighting its lyrical aspects, the quasi-operatic melody and drama that run through it; these are elements that Hahn's sweetly singing tone is poised to make the most of. But even if she can't make the Paganini into something it isn't, Hahn's thoughtful approach reminds us that there's a depth beneath this work's spectacular surface. Even more appealing, and arguably a more significant salvage mission, is her performance of Louis Spohr's Violin Concerto No. 8 -- composed, like Paganini's concerto, in 1816. This work's subtitle, "in modo di scene cantante," refers to its unusual, imaginative structure: It takes the form of an operatic scene, with the violin as vocalist. It's therefore more essentially lyrical and dramatic than the Paganini, but it's no less of a virtuoso showpiece than that better-known work. Hahn's commitment to this concerto really shines through, and rightly so, for its dignified beauty more than repays her attention. Not just for Hahn's many fans, but for any violin aficionado, this disc is a vital new arrival.