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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Works for Solo Violin

  • Partita #3 in E Major, BWV 1006
  • Partita #2 in D minor, BWV 1004
  • Sonata #3 in C Major, BWV 1005
Hilary Hahn, violin
Sony SK62793 78:44
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Un-freakin'-believable.

I first heard Hilary Hahn live, in a performance with the Cleveland Orchestra of the Mozart third violin concerto. As a rule, I'm not a huge fan of the Mozart violin concerti, and I've always preferred the "Turkish" fifth. However, Hahn and the Cleveland made a believer of me. Hahn invested her line with the subtlety of a great singer, and the orchestra followed her with the sensitivity of a Gerald Moore. It was one of the finest Mozart performances I've ever heard. Forget Mozart, it was one of the finest performances I've ever heard. Intermission, and I rushed to the lobby, to buy two CDs from the violinist herself (she signed them). So now you know me for the gushing fan I've tried to hide from you.

Right now, Hilary Hahn is as good or better than violinists two and three times her age, both as a violinist and as a musician. My only doubt attaches to her range. I've not heard her in the big Romantic works. Although I note a Brahms concerto recording, everything I've listened to has been small-scale – Mozart, Beethoven, Barber, Bernstein, and Bach. Within that, however, she is right now a master, and the thought that she will probably improve unnerves me a little.

All her virtues spring to light from the first notes on this disc: intonation not only dead-on, but actively contributing to the beauty and excitement of the music; double-stops as if they're no big deal; a gorgeous singing tone. In addition to the technique, she is – no other word for it – musical, in a fundamental way that goes beyond intellect and analysis. Maybe someone did teach her this, but it sounds absolutely spontaneous, as if she decides at the last possible instant where the music goes next, while at the same time, holding in her head the larger vision of a movement's architecture.

For some reason, however, the recording has stirred up controversy. People tend to love it or hate it. Put me down in the former camp. Furthermore, people seem to hate it for contradictory reasons. Some blame her for taking an excessively Romantic approach, while others find it cold and "technical." "Excess" and "aloofness" seem to me to cancel each other out. I have little idea why people consider her performance a Romantic one, other than the fact that she uses a modern instrument in a modern way, rather than a period instrument with appropriately period bowing and tone. To me, the furor over modern-vs.-HIP means ultimately very little, since it's largely a fight about means rather than about results. I don't find her excessive or even deeply dramatic in her reading. It's basically youthful ardor and dancing, with a natural elegance some people mistakenly equate with frigidity. It's the same category of error as the disapproval some people feel toward the widow who doesn't weep copiously and wail during the funeral – a rather suburban, unimaginative prejudice.

The solo violin works alternate partitas and sonatas. Partitas are simply suites of dances, although we shall quickly see that Bach's dances aren't meant for court or rustic dancers. The sonatas take the form of sonata di chiesa (church sonatas), old-fashioned by the time Bach got around to writing them – old-fashioned even in Vivaldi's day. The latter are in four movements, the second a fugue – in the order slow, fast, slow, fast. The slow movements tend to serve as elaborate introductions to the fast ones.

The program opens with the third partita and an impetuous, sweeping "Preludio," a movement Bach liked so much, he arranged it at least twice, for both the Christmas Oratorio and another cantata. Hahn takes your breath away. One of the main tensions of the set lies in the contradiction between the violin (primarily a melody instrument) and Bach's contrapuntal style. Bach provides a catalogue of tricks – some he gets from the Italian composer-violinists he studied, like Vivaldi and Corelli, some he invents – in order to simulate several simultaneous voices from an instrument essentially single-tracked and linear. It seems to me one of the performer's jobs to fool the ear. Hahn provides this in fairly pure form in the second-movement "Loure." She not only gets the momentary "chord" of her double-stops, but the melodic lines the sequence of double-stops provides. In the following "Gavotte en Rondeau," Bach also carries out the illusion by wide range separation of the (mainly) two lines of music, and here Hahn keeps the lines apart mainly through differing dynamics, rather than succumb to the spurious ease of playing everything as one melody.

Bach, of course, left very few indications or interpretive marks as to how his music should go. This consequently furnishes a lot of room to performers. Nevertheless, I find two general schools. First, what I might call the "Saint Sebastian School" raises Bach to the status of deity and tends to treat everything he wrote as Profound with a capital P. How can a god write anything less? I'm not saying that there are no great performances which take this approach (Milstein and Szeryng come quickly to mind), but the failures really jar as pretentious and, worse, dull. The second – what I think of as the "Italian School" – is much lighter, closer to the dances which are not quite dances and not quite monuments either. This approach generally fails in the longer movements, where the music just tends to go by and evaporate. I tend to like Bach more among the Italianate practitioners. For me, the saints and angels dance and go about eternal life pretty much like they went through their mortal one. The difference is they can bear "the unbearable lightness of being." Perhaps for this reason as well, I regard a Bauhaus cathedral more authentically celestial than a Baroque or Rococo one. At any rate, Hahn sings and dances as if they were the most natural things in the world, or out of it.

The second partita, however, is her least successful account. She begins beautifully in the "Allemande" but quickly loses the separation of voices, choosing instead a smooth, single line. She doesn't lose it entirely, but enough to jeopardize the overall architecture of the movement. There simply isn't enough chiaroscuro. She recovers in the "Courante," and moreover manages to tie it to the "Allemande." The third-movement "Sarabande" counts as one of the best of the set – heartfelt singing without over-inflation; she even manages one or two allusions to the "Chaconne" finale (also a sarabande) – while the following "Gigue" conveys strength, joy, and flexibility.

Violinists have so often performed the "Ciaccona" as an encore or as a stand-alone recital piece that they often forget how to attach it to the rest of the Partita. We have remarked on Hahn's adumbrations of this movement in an earlier one, but one senses a disconnect between the end of the "Gigue" and the beginning of the "Ciaccona." The finale challenges not only the fingers, but the brain. How does one shape this massive chunk? Most performances clock in anywhere from fourteen to fifteen minutes. Hahn takes close to eighteen, not bad in itself, but it would seem to require a greater grasp of the piece as a whole than she gives. This is a fragmentary reading. The fragments are beautiful, but they only intermittently cohere into larger structures. Often, this is a matter of sticking too long with one dynamic or changing the dynamic at a structurally awkward point. Furthermore, the crescendos and decrescendos need to be better managed. She sometimes runs out of room on the crescendos and doesn't find enough opportunity to decrescendo. At one point, she slows down the tempo as slow as I've ever heard it without the music becoming pokey. Indeed, from this stems the longer performing time. Some listeners have taken exception. I think it a great idea, since it provides architectural contrast. The problem is that Hahn needs a clearer view of the complete structure she's trying to build – and it is her job, not Bach's. I can't judge the success of the tempo change, because her structure still seems unclear. With interpretive freedom comes interpretive responsibility. She recorded this six years ago, still in her teens. I'd like to hear her play it now.

The opening "Adagio" of the sonata exhibits the virtues of crescendo and decrescendo the "Chaconne" lacks. The shape of phrases and how they fit together stand out in high relief. Again, the tempo runs a bit to the slow side, but, again, Hahn brings off the tempo she sets. The transition to the fugue is beautifully done. So Hahn can do these things, but she needs to remind herself to do them. The fugue itself stands as another highlight of the set. Only slightly shorter than the "Chaconne," it makes the same demands of the player – demands which Hahn this time meets in spades, preparing for and fashioning one powerful climax after another, all in the service of elucidating the architecture of the whole. The following "Largo" runs longer than most, but I'd not have it a moment less: limpidly beautiful and, yes, a bit Romantic, like a Mendelssohn andante. The allegro finale burns down the barn, without sacrificing musicality or a sharply-defined independence of voices.

All in all, an impressive half. I hope she gets to record the other three and to redo the second partita. At any rate, I'm a believer (and I didn't even have to see her face).

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz