Virtuoso violinist Hilary Hahn holds her audience rapt but adds some irritants

Distortion: Hilary Hahn, at left in 2009, ilary Hahn performs at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Distortion: Hilary Hahn, at left in 2009, ilary Hahn performs at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) (Mark J. Terrill)

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By Robert Battey
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hilary Hahn, one of the greatest violinists in the world today, can do anything she wants. Including things that distort the music, leave an audience puzzled and waste the talents of her pianist. It doesn't matter. Listening to this freak of nature play is to be in the presence of instrumental talent that comes along once in a generation, if that.

Hahn, who grew up in Baltimore and started in a Suzuki program at Peabody Institute, exudes little star power or charisma onstage. Her affect is focused and demure, like a dutiful student. She rarely takes her eyes off of her left hand, and her face remains impassive.

But what comes pouring out of the fiddle is a river of diamonds; each note polished to a high gloss, every chord scratch-free and perfectly in tune. There are players with more robust sounds (like Zukerman or Repin), but none who attain such exquisite, highly wrought detail in every phrase.

In a program that uncomfortably juxtaposed old standards (Bach, Beethoven, Kreisler) with second-tier Americans (Charles Ives, George Antheil), Hahn and her virtuoso pianist Valentina Lisitsa held the capacity crowd at Strathmore on Sunday afternoon mostly rapt. Not that they made it easy. The first half ended with the Ives Sonata No. 4, an unruly pastiche of hymns, marches and folk songs in a polytonal texture, which simply stopped mid-phrase. There are certainly less worthy pieces out there, but it was an odd thing to leave the audience with after Beethoven's amiable "Spring" Sonata.

Worse, the concert concluded with the Antheil Sonata No. 1, the weakest piece on the program. (The printed notes quoted the composer as being proud and relieved that "the pernicious Stravinsky sound was out of my ear." He was mistaken; I've rarely heard such a baldly derivative work.)

Worse still, the piece required Hahn, the epitome of refinement, to make coarse, rebarbative sounds on her instrument (and Lisitsa to bang out "chords" with her flat palm). Bach and Kreisler encores only partly cleansed the palate.

The Beethoven was slightly bloodless, as if the artists were saving themselves for later. Everything was expertly manicured, but accents were wan and Hahn's staccatos were sticky rather than spiky. The range of expression in the Adagio molto was narrow, though Lisitsa made the most of one operatic solo. Hahn's pianist is a powerhouse in her own right (her DVD of the Chopin etudes is amazing), and this program certainly didn't leverage her talents adequately. Everything seemed slightly off-kilter.

But had Hahn programmed a more traditional duo recital, we would not have gotten to hear her unaccompanied Bach, which is one of the wonders of the Western world. Her first recording of this repertoire, at age 17, marked her as an instrumental genius, and Sunday's rendition of the B Minor Partita was simply jaw-dropping in its perfection. A few tempos seemed slow, as she related each "Double" more to its previous movement rather than its own character. And she was inconsistent with repeats, making the piece's structure incoherent.

But, as I said, it didn't matter. The inexorable sense of the musical line, the immaculate intonation, the separation of different voices, and the lambent, angelic beauty of sound added up to a performance that normally exists only in the imagination.

Battey is a freelance writer.


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