The ghosts of violinists past hovered over Hilary Hahn's Sunday night recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. She programmed works by three of the most celebrated fiddlers of the 20th century -- Eugene Ysaye, Georges Enesco and Nathan Milstein -- and played transcriptions by two more, Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler, as her encores.
One suspects that these gentlemen would have found good company in her. Indeed, this brainy and unusually rewarding program offered further proof that the 25-year-old Hahn has transcended her prodigy status and moved on to mastery.
From the start of her career a dozen years ago, she was a lovely player -- sweet-toned, inquisitive, brimming with ideas and intelligence -- but she now radiates a strength, precision and confidence that can come only with maturity, and then only to a very few musicians. Indeed, I can hardly think of another living violinist to whom I would rather have been listening and, apparently, a lot of other people agree, as the Kennedy Center was all but sold out and the standing ovations were fervent.
Enesco's Sonata No. 3 in A Minor ("On Popular Romanian Themes") is Gypsy music raised to a high level of sophistication, liberally spiced with dissonance and tone clusters. Hahn played it with a mixture of patrician cool and plaintive expressionism; at times her sound was so uniquely distinctive, so absolutely hers, that it could almost have been a human voice. Pianist Natalie Zhu proved a full, brilliantly virtuosic partner in the exploration of Enesco's three-movement sonata, which manages the neat trick of combining modernist innovation with old-fashioned narrative flair -- a "showstopper" that is as cerebral as it is viscerally exciting.
The opening movement of Mozart's Sonata in G (K. 301) was something of a letdown, a performance characterized by sleek elegance rather than the darting playfulness that seems to me its essence. Hahn and Zhu made up for this in the second movement, however, which was done up in high romantic style, sounding almost Brahmsian. And Beethoven's Sonata in E-flat (Op. 12, No. 3) had all the sinew and vigor in the world, yet took on a singing ease in the central movement, which could have been written by Rossini.
Hahn played two ambitious works for unaccompanied violin: Ysaye's Sonata No. 1 and Milstein's "Paganiniana." The latter is a tribute to Niccolo Paganini, who all but single-handedly invented the concept of the "star" violinist and, through his concertos and solo "caprices," added much to the instrument's technical glossary. Milstein began with the melody to Paganini's 24th Caprice (a simple, reiterative theme that has inspired composers ranging from Brahms to Rachmaninoff to Witold Lutoslawski) and added his own series of spectacularly challenging variations. This could easily have devolved into the dullest sort of show-off acrobatics ("Hey, look how fast I can play these octaves!") but Hahn kept things musical throughout, and the score unfolded as a long and immaculate meditation -- tender, teasing, glowering and shimmering by turn.