New music should be part of a healthy musical diet — not a big deal, not cordoned off onto some kind of musical equivalent of a vegan menu. That was, at least, the attitude espoused by Hilary Hahn and Robert Levin at their breezy and wonderful Washington Performing Arts recital Friday night.
We classical music lovers get hung up on new music. Do audiences like it? Is it worthy of comparison with the best of Beethoven? How do we make people sit through it? Both Hahn and Levin made a case for it simply as something they very much care about — not at all to the exclusion of the masterworks for which both are best known. Hahn premiered the last three of a set of six solo partitas written for her by Spanish composer Antón García Abril, commissioned by Washington Performing Arts, having already played the first three at her recital in April. Levin played a piece called “Traeume” (Dreams), written for him by Romanian composer Hans Peter Turk. Framing their pieces with spoken introductions that made it clear why the works were important to both of them, and playing them with loving commitment, they offered something worth hearing — the first and most important requirement for a performance.
Having missed the first set of Abril partitas, I can say only that these three on Friday formed an attractive showcase for Hahn. Tender and impassioned, they drew recognizably on the solo violinist’s traditional vocabulary, with plenty of lingering polyphony, some virtuosic fireworks and nudges into a post-tonal world, without losing its tethers to the past. There were hints of folkloric color in the fifth partita, and there was a lot of bravura playing in the sixth, which was the longest and formed an emphatic finale. I was not ripped from my seat, but I certainly would not mind hearing them once more. Then again, it would be hard to mind hearing Hahn, with her quiet, luminous mastery, play pretty much anything she chose.
It was gracious and fitting of Hahn to give Levin a prominent solo — gracious to showcase the pianist on a recital headlined by the violinist, fitting because it allowed both artists to reveal their love for contemporary music. Levin gave such a personal introduction to Turk’s piece — written after much cajoling, in memory of the composer’s wife — that it is safe to say everyone was happy to hear it when he was done. Opening as a lovely lullaby, it deepened into emotional turmoil without losing its lyrical core — a winsome singing line turned dark in the left hand while the right hand scaled up and down the keyboard.
All this new work, bracing but never abrasive, was beautifully balanced by three masterworks from the canon: Bach’s Sonata No. 6 in G, BWV 1019; Mozart’s Sonata in E-flat, K. 481; and Schubert’s Rondo in B minor, D. 895. The Bach and the Mozart are true duets, in which the piano and violin have equal roles, and Levin made an arresting partner. Both players sounded so spontaneous that it seemed miraculous they were so perfectly coordinated. The Bach was as fluid and swift as rushing water, and the Mozart sounded as contemporary as the Abril. Only the Schubert put the solo violin in the spotlight, and it was, though gorgeous, in ways less satisfying. For the encore, Hahn returned to a contemporary work, Max Richter’s “Mercy,” a beautiful, slow, lyrical piece that put the stamp on the evening’s theme: New music can, indeed, give great pleasure to a “traditional” audience.