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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 21, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 42
A modern musical guru
Arts & Entertainment
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A modern musical guru

By Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Recital by Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa
Benaroya Hall
October 17


Hilary Hahn's recital with pianist Valentina Lisitsa was so extraordinary in so many ways, it's hard to know where to begin. First of all, her always beautiful tone varied with each piece, from thin filigree to organ-like power. Completely free of mannerisms, she and the violin seemed an organic whole. Nothing appeared effortful, even in moments of extremely virtuosity. I know of no more impressive a violinist performing in the world today.

But this was something far more than just an excellent recital by a superb instrumentalist. It was also a musical exploration. In a program of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, Hahn interspersed no fewer than 13 short selections from '27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores,' works that were 'no more than five minutes old,' she said, compared to the Bach. These were commissioned by the artist from contemporary composers. They were not, as one might have expected, crossover pieces, although there were a few jazzy elements here and there. They were challenging, always interesting, works that thoroughly involved the piano as much as the violin.

Aside from the compelling interest of the new pieces, I found the effect they had on the three B's most surprising. For instance, after opening with three of the modern works, Hahn and Lisitsa launched into Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 12, the opening movement of which seemed as fresh as the music we had just heard. It was as if the new music had cleared our minds, like a palate refresher, leaving us open to the Beethoven in a way we could not otherwise have been. Of course, the performance of the Sonata was also thoroughly wonderful.

What we were experiencing was an artist who doesn't just play better than most anyone else; she was also leading us, teaching us, seducing us to experience the music in a new way. She is a musical guru, so much so that I have to admit I came away from the evening feeling that I had experienced something of a spiritual re-awakening. The clarity in her music and in the way she addressed the audience, so completely devoid of pretense, so direct and appealing, removed any resistance to the 'modern' sounds as well as to the older music. What she achieved was almost mystical without any trappings of 'new age' or other category of mysticism.

One of the highlights of this stellar recital was Bach's unaccompanied Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001. Years ago a young violinist from Siberia, Maxim Vengerov, played all six sonatas of Eugène Ysaÿe, making Benaroya Hall ring with the seeming power of the huge pipe organ. In Hahn's Bach there were moments of similarly amazing power, coming from a 31-year-old woman of very slender frame and girlish looks. No less astounding was the expansive warmth of her tone. The many examples of her playing more than one note at a time (multiple stops) seemed utterly facile and natural. Indeed, her performance left me wishing Bach could be there to hear it! In Hahn's hands there could be no music more exciting, more full of musical genius than this Bach. Who needs an orchestra if you've got Hilary Hahn playing such music?

Brahms' 'Sonatensatz' (Scherzo) in C minor completed the three B's, in a performance that found nothing lacking. It's first-rate Brahms, and all the warmth and passion one could wish for filled the hall with yet another kind of musical genius. The demanding piano part showed Lisitsa to be no less an artist than Hahn. Their longstanding musical partnership is clearly a perfect match.

If one had to pick another highlight, it would be the last of the new works, Max Richter's 'Mercy.' If the film Schindler's List had not had such a wonderful soundtrack, this very moving and gorgeous piece would be an ideal substitute. It's nice to know that such beauty can still be composed in the twenty-first century.

Before each 'set,' Hahn addressed the audience to announce the revised order of the program and to comment. Thus, she introduced her one 'real encore,' Charles Ives' 'Largo.' This was a concert so full of thrills and nourishment, we really didn't need any more after that. Besides, one can go to hilaryhahn.com, where you will find that Hahn is also an avid writer, or to youtube.com/hilaryhahnvideos. On Twitter, her violin case comments on life as a traveling companion: twitter.com/violincase. Enjoy!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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