An evening of Bach to remember with Hilary Hahn

Wed Oct 24, 2018 at 2:28 pm
Hilary Hahn performed music of Bach Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Kevin Yatarola

Hilary Hahn performed music of Bach Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Kevin Yatarola

Hilary Hahn’s very first album was a recording of Bach’s Partitas Nos. 2 and 3 and Sonata No. 3, for solo violin (Sony), made when she was a teenager. That album remains a classic, with a gravity and focus rare in a teenage musician, and a technical and musical command one expects from a prodigy. (She has a new Decca album out this year that completes the Bach set.) 

Now with a distance of decades between those two recordings, life and growing artistry have added an expansive depth of feeling to Bach playing that was already brilliant.

Hahn showed this in full measure Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall, playing the Sonata No. 1 and Partitas Nos. 1 and 2 in a Lincoln Center White Light Festival concert titled “Solo Flight.” So much of Bach is about technique, about the breadth of meaning in the exact delineation of musical structures, and her technique was as exceptional as ever. Her expression also showed a maturity that accepts there are profound things to discover in the music that can never be fully described nor understood.

Hahn has spoken in the past about the necessity of playing Bach with precise intonation, awareness of when counterpoint and harmonies turn into melody, and of “presenting the structure in such a way that it’s clear to the listener without being pedantic.” She has maintained those virtues in her Bach since she was a teenager, and Tuesday’s concert showed she has deepened them.

For example, the Allemande that opens Partita No. 2 is now simpler. She played it with a legato that felt languid—though the tempo was normal—and loving. Underneath she gently but clearly articulated each note, making the arpeggiations that establish harmonies into melodies. That kind of attention applied to a specific, vital detail was evident all evening, starting with the opening Adagio of Sonata No. 1. There Hahn identified short melodies within the flow of sixteenth notes and shaped them with the same kind of legato.

She used a broad range of finely calibrated dynamics in each piece, with striking expressive effect. The repeated phrases in the Adagio of Sonata No. 1 were first loud, with authoritative presence, then soft, the music echoing itself within its own structure.

Her tempo in the Adagio was slower than usual, but she made it feel just right, and every other tempo seemed ideal, so much so that the doubling of the Tempo di Boureé at the end of Partita No. I was excitingly fast and under complete control. In every piece, she played the faster or more dance-like movements with a rock-solid downbeat—her rubato was selective and judicious—and that added a spring of flowing forward movement.

These elements added up to Bach of uncommon depth. Her care for presenting Bach’s structure meant that, in each piece, she spun his notes, rhythms, and fleeting harmonies into architecture. Hearing this was like walking through a spare, elegant building in which corridors and rooms formed themselves just in front of one’s every step, only to disappear behind.

She had complete command of the closing Chaconne of Partita No. 2, which was gorgeous. It was also calm, self-contained, with less emphasis on digging up what emotions might lie within and more, again, on letting the structure unfold.

That in itself capped an exceptional performance. Called back for multiple ovations from a crowd shouting with enthusiasm, Hahn wondered aloud about “what to play after that?” She asked the crowd, “How much Chaconne is too much? Want me to play it again?”

And so she did, and it was different than the first time around, passionate and gripping. She had a loose devil-may-care altitude, and didn’t so much throw caution to the wind as step from the role of performer into the music itself. 

Pianist Pedja Muzijevic and dancer Cesc Gelabert perform Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 8 p.m. November 1 and 2.

One Response to “An evening of Bach to remember with Hilary Hahn”

  1. Posted Oct 24, 2018 at 7:31 pm by L.L. Holt

    A review of rare sensitivity and insight. Wish I’d been there!

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