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Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zhu Recital at Kennedy Center

Hilary HahnThis year casual audiences delight in – and compulsive concert-goers fear – Mozart, who was born a celebrateable 250 years ago. Not to buck the trend, Hilary Hahn has recorded some of his sonatas with her friend and colleague Natalie Zhu, as reviewed on ionarts. Ms. Hahn’s recital at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall coinciding with that October release, however, was far, far more than just a Mozart-stuffed plug for that recording. Ysaÿe, Enescu, Milstein, and Beethoven (and, yes, one obligatory Mozart sonata) were enough to excite on paper alone.

First off was Ysaÿe’s first of six sonatas for unaccompanied violin (op. 27). For my money, those six sonatas are the best thing written for solo violin since Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas – not by chance, perhaps, given that Ysaÿe took generous inspiration from the latter, particularly in the G minor sonata that Ms. Hahn played with the consummate skill we can expect from her. The Baltimore native and her lean, excellent French violin produce a filigrane, sometimes ghostly, clean tone slightly on the dry side that emanates cool beauty. A press release for the event lauded her “heartfelt lyricism” that “drives to the heart and soul of the music.” I can’t exactly agree; if Ms. Hahn aims for the heart, she misses by just over a foot, hitting the center of the brain as she does. Where the same bio is right on is in characterizing her playing as “free of musical excess” and noting her “intellectual and emotional maturity.” The mentioned qualities of her playing and a certain noble musicality are only underscored by the tone of her instrument – the combination of which leaves some critics of her bemoaning absences of sweetness. It depends on the musical territory for me what kind of a sound I want – but neither in Ysaÿe nor Enescu am I looking for a particularly sweet tone. Rather than neutralize her style with an Amati, Hilary Hahn is better off (if only in my opinion) being her distinct, excellent self, even if that means little Kreisler from her any time soon. (If I want violin playing from the candy factory, I need only go so far as Perlman or Bell, anyway.) It’s no coincidence that the Ysaÿe recording I enjoy the most is Thomas Zehetmair’s recent one on ECM. He is certainly more an intellectual than Romantic player, and yet he still gives each sonata the requisite distinct character of the violinist the sonatas were written for: Szigeti, Thibaud, Enescu, Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom, and Manuel Quiroga, respectively.

Hilary Hahn came back for the third Enescu sonata, in A minor, op. 25, with Natalie Zhu. Composed just two years after Ysaÿe wrote all his sonatas in a single 1924 night, the Enescu work is of the same 20th-century musical language that Bartók, Shostakovich, Britten, and Bloch employed: neither much (if at all) influenced by Schoenberg (then still only in his early stages) nor backward-looking like the likes of Dohnányi, Paderewski, Stojowski, or Moszowski. Like Ysaÿe, Enescu was one of the great violinists of his generation (exactly one generation after Ysaÿe), and like Bartók in Hungary, Enescu made the most of his Romania’s native soundscape. The third sonata’s spontaneity belies the meticulous (to say the least) instructions both pianist and violinist get on their way for performances. Natalie Zhu let the piano ring beautifully in a work that asks for much more than an ‘accompanist’. Hilary Hahn ripped wry pizzicatos off her fiddle that it was a joy. The blind understanding between violinist and Ms. Zhu, aided by flawless performance, energy, and fun led to many a good thing… thundering applause afterwards being just the least of it.

Continuing with violinist’s violin compositions, a rarity was offered: Paganiniana, where one of the finest violinists of the 20th century – Nathan Milstein – had his way with the 24th Caprice of Paganini, the greatest violinist of the 19th century. Hilary Hahn hardly has to prove her technical ability, which is on par with the best of today’s violinists and well above some of the very popular ones. A little more effort than that needle-through-leather Milstein-sound was audible, but the clarity and precision with which her little spider of a left hand navigated the fingerboard was stunning enough.

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, Hilary Hahn at the Kennedy Center (DCist, November 14)

Tim Page, Hilary Hahn, Channeling Violinists of Yore (Washington Post, November 15)
Mozart at his worst is pretty – and while there are discernable differences between the best of his chamber output (quintets, trios) and the least genial (early quartets, a few of the violin sonatas), anyone ready to snub an exquisitely played G major Sonata for Piano and Violin (K. 301) would be a fool. I reserve being a fool for another cause and report only happy delight from Hahn/Zhu’s go at the 22-year-old composer, who just about found his mature style at that age. (Despite consistent rumors to the contrary Mozart was, in composer terms, if not a late bloomer then at least maturing at a very ordinary pace.) Tellingly, the six sonatas, of which K. 301 is one, are called Sonatas for Harpsichord or Fortepiano with Accompaniment of Violin. If one makes the test of this title’s ‘truth’ the question if the violin could be removed without the sonata taking damage – as Eric Bromberger in his very informative program notes does - then it is of course easy to “show[ ] how false that idea is.” But that’s hardly the point. Much rather the title acknowledges the central importance of the pianist in these works (and for that matter in the later violin sonatas, also), without whom there would be little impression made. Maybe it is a coincidence that the most consistently beautiful recording, one that has done the most to advocate the value of these sonatas to me, bills the pianist first (Uchida / Steinberg on Philips) – but I chose to believe it isn’t. About the present performances little needs to be said other than that it was utterly musical, bold enough, and (unsurprisingly) more pleasing yet than listening to their record of it.

Beethoven, like Mozart, has his share of clichés to deal with. The “mad composer,” “fate knocking on the door,” and other anecdotes that range between cute extramusical flavor and pure rubbish. One thing Beethoven rarely got accused of, though, is having been a child protégé. “What if he had died at 30” is a popular question (among music geeks, at least) – and the answer is a preliminary question: “Would the six op.18 string quartets and the second symphony have merited great-composer status?” The answer to that, in turn, should you care for me to make up your mind, is “No.” But we’d have ‘discovered’ this Beethoven character at some point and been delighted to find the Sonata for Harpsichord or Piano, with Violin from the op. 12 set among his works. What charming music from this unknown composer, what potential! We would have engaged in the only hypothetical game more popular than “What if he had died” – namely “What if he hadn’t died.”

Beethoven didn’t, we know, and hence we are aware of his seven consequent compositions in that genre. The only reason I hesitate to call them “seven improvements” outright is that, when played live and well, op. 12, no. 3, is such a little charmer that you just can’t belittle it. Another much appreciated fact about this work is that – like in the Mozart sonata – the piano is fully emancipated if not even the lead. It should not surprise that Hilary Hahn would chose three sonatas that so prominently feature and rely on the keyboard partner. Playing just to ‘accompaniment’ or, worse, ‘realization’ is no fun for any musician. And not just after this concert do I feel at liberty of accusing Ms. Hahn of being a musician rather than a mere violinist.

Natalie Zhu delighted with her sleeves-up interpretation that was full of good humor and bright-eyed love for the music at hand. While she played the sonata and showed that her delicate size could hardly keep her from whacking the New York Steinway in front of her as hard as necessary, she had a most assured partner in crime in Ms. Hahn. The concert, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society was a thoroughly delightful affair and crowned by two short encores. Prokofiev’s march from Love for Three Oranges as arranged by Heifetz (there it was again, that lithe agility I most appreciate about Hahn) first, and then the audience was wistfully sent home with the sounds of an Austrian lost in Buenos Aires – the Kreisler-arranged Tango of Albéniz.