Hilary Hahn’s Bach towers over a mixed Boston program of sonatas and encores

March 02, 2013
By David Wright

HIlary Hahn performed with pianist Cory Smythe Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series of Boston. Photo: Glenn Ross

Just when the recital by violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Cory Smythe Friday night at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall seemed doomed to be forgettable, it became unforgettable.

Late in the program presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, while pianist Smythe took a break, Hahn returned alone to the stage and gave a riveting performance of the Ciaconna (Chaconne) from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor that banished all thoughts of the evening’s earlier tediums.

The road to that indelible moment seemed like a long one at times.  On paper, the program had everything going for it: worthy but not overfamiliar sonatas by Corelli and Fauré, one familiar but inexhaustible masterwork (the Chaconne), and a sprinkling of new short pieces from Hahn’s current commissioning project, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.

Beginning one’s recital with encores is certainly a way to stand out from the crowd.  The duo led off with two attractive items by Antón García Abril, First Sigh and Third Sigh, impressionistic music with a Spanish coloration, one piece inclined toward the lyrical and the other toward the rhetorical.  The first encore group closed with Du Yun’s When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa, a delicate Chinese lament (or love song?) coupled with a furious outburst in high-pitched double stops.

It was enough to get one thinking: What is an encore, anyway?  To start with, it’s the French word for “again” or “more.”  In a recital, it’s the little unannounced “extra,” the lagniappe, the treat at the bottom of the box.

But while every encore is a short piece, not every short piece is an encore.  The purpose of an encore is to stop time, to let the audience believe, for a precious few more minutes, that the concert isn’t over.  The best encores—including those familiar pieces by Kreisler or Sarasate that are the godparents of Hahn’s project—crystallize a mood and hold it in suspension, so that when it is finally released at the end there’s a little “ah.”  They don’t march us through first theme, second theme, development, et cetera.

Hahn gave her composers a time limit of five minutes.  Listening to the ten pieces on Friday’s program, one wished it had been half that, or even less, so that the composers would be less likely to think “My God, this is Hilary Hahn, and I’ve only got one shot,” and be tempted to throw in everything they know, or else just go on when the musical point has been made.

Also, despite the international cast of composers, there was less variety in the ten selections than one might hope for.  Although the pieces bore enigmatic titles like Storm of the Eye and 133…At Least, it seemed as though many of them could have been titled Let’s See How Fast Hilary Can Play.  Missing were any of those lovely adagios, those “hush, hush” encores that calm the audience and send them floating out of the hall.

One doesn’t know what instructions Hahn gave the composers, but if an encore is defined as that little lift at the end of a program, either of the García Abril pieces would serve well for that, as would David Lang’s Light Moving, a rapid figuration prelude à la J.S. Bach via Philip Glass, which Hahn played with marvelously subtle, glinting stresses and inflections.

Kala Ramnath’s Aalap and Tarana wove a sensuous Indian mood with a languid violin melody and variations over a soft drone and plucked notes in the piano.  And the program-closing group of three encores ended with Ford’s Farm by Mason Bates, a bluesy dance with droll double-stopping à la Stravinsky’s Tango and also some fancy fiddling and banjo figuration—a violation of the “do one thing well” rule for encores, but charming nonetheless.

Unlike the violin encores of old, these pieces didn’t spare the pianist.  Smythe, billed in his program biography as a specialist in new music, negotiated the complex rhythms, rapid leaps, tone clusters, and tiring tremolos with aplomb.

While Hahn seemed to take a proprietary interest in projecting the character of the pieces she commissioned, the older works in the program’s first half didn’t fare so well.

In contrast to such extroverted contemporaries as Vivaldi and Tartini, Arcangelo Corelli was especially known for the exquisite sensitivity of his playing and compositions, but one would hardly have known it from the duo’s rendering of his Sonata in F major, Op. 5, No. 4.  Hahn played the slow movements clearly and correctly but without much expression, while Smythe’s fingers were tangled in the fussy ornaments of a figured-bass realization clearly intended for a harpsichord, not the plush sound of a Steinway grand.

The three fast movements went better, lively and articulate with touches of humor here and there.  In the second movement, Hahn played a hopping fugue with herself in double stops, a delightful foretaste of the great Bach work to come.

In Fauré’s Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 13, the two players worked together impressively, Smythe in particular weaving his counterpoints through the lush texture and sensing exactly how much big Romantic piano sound he could lay on without covering the violin.

For all their skill, however, the performance sounded rather dry and detached.  Come on, one thought, here’s this piece that a young French Romantic composer wrote for himself to play with the brother of his fiancée.  Can’t we put a little more juice into it?

Then, a second thought: Ah, this is the New Objectivity.  Just play it.  Let Fauré be Fauré.  Don’t pile your own effusions on top of his effusions. And a little later, a third thought: No, actually, this is just boring.

The sonata performance was interrupted twice by applause, once after the duo got up a good head of steam for the first movement’s big finish, and again in recognition of their pinpoint timing in the scherzo’s skittering staccato figures and pizzicato close.  But the melancholy Andante was a desert of monochromatic matter-of-factness, the scherzo had virtuosity but no humor, and the elusive charm of the finale entirely eluded these performers.

None of this boded well for Bach’s Chaconne, a long set of variations on a short theme that calls for the utmost in emotional insight and variety of tone color, qualities that had been conspicuously lacking in the sonata performances.

Following the intermission and another set of three encores, Hahn came onstage, stood dead center in front of the curve of the piano, launched into the Chaconne’s somber theme, and changed the entire arc of the evening.  There may have been weightier interpretations of this piece than hers, or more meditative, or more inclined to linger over each variation, but few can claim the kind of deep-wave momentum she brought to it, as each variation built on the last.

Borne along on that wave, one could hardly wait to see what new wonder would emerge, be it the voicing that sometimes produced the sensation of two or three instruments playing instead of one, the emergence of a fresh new melody, a burst of animal high spirits, a pause to reflect, or the dizzying wheels-within-wheels of the ecstatic string-crossing variations.

With the spotlight entirely on the lone player, even mundane technical matters such as impeccable bow control and intonation became wondrous objects to contemplate.  But the musical results in tone color and projection of emotion were the best reward.  Hahn handled the piece’s turning points, especially the achingly reluctant return from the D-major dream to D-minor reality, with utmost sensitivity.

When Hahn at last brought the piece to earth on a final D, the stored wave energy in the audience burst in a standing—no, levitating—ovation.

The program still had three more short pieces to go, and very agreeable ones they were.  Still, one wonders how the composers felt about following one of the monuments of Western civilization—and in such a performance.

Then the players returned for, what else, an encore.  That was a nice touch of humor, although the need (if any) for something to bring listeners down from the heights of Bach had long passed.  Richard Barrett’s Shade, a spooky confection of squeaks, scurries, and shivery harmonics, will no doubt be just the right charming “extra” for some future program.

The next presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston will be pianist Jeremy Denk 8 p.m. Saturday at Jordan Hall.  celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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