Hilary Hahn and Robert Levin strike sparks from Bach to Türk

October 31, 2016
By Charles T. Downey
Hilary Hahn performed a recital with pianist Robert Levin Friday night for Washington Performing Arts. Photo: Michael Patrick O'Leary

Hilary Hahn performed a recital with pianist Robert Levin Friday night for Washington Performing Arts. Photo: Michael Patrick O’Leary

Hilary Hahn is one of the Washington D.C. area’s favorite daughters. Born in Virginia and raised partly in Baltimore, where she studied at the Peabody Institute, the American violinist appears regularly in our halls, often thanks to Washington Performing Arts. The same  presenter was also responsible for her concert Friday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

This performance was the second half of a two-part appearance that began last April in the Music Center at Strathmore. The connection was a set of six new partitas by Spanish composer Antón García Abril, commissioned by Hahn through Washington Performing Arts and some generous donors. The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Partitas, heard together in a long first half, gave much the same impression as the first three partitas had earlier this year. They are not collections of dances, as the name implies, but meandering works that suit Hahn’s technique and musical approach, as she explained it.

Hahn is obviously taken by Abril’s style, which was mostly uniform across all six pieces. For long stretches the texture is in serene double stops, something at which Hahn excels, with her impeccable intonation and attention to detailed attack and release of sound. Sections in other styles broke this meditative character: a fast hoedown in the Fourth and Fifth Partitas; the application of the mute in both the Fourth and Fifth Partitas, creating a magical, otherworldly sound; a more daring opening in the Sixth Partita in quick runs.

The Fifth Partita was the only Abril piece in which the development of a melodic motif, longing appoggiaturas and suspensions, unified the work in a compelling way. At only eight minutes, it was also the most compact of the three partitas. Some pizzicato passages and Hahn’s warm, floating tone high on the E string gave the Sixth Partita some distinctive qualities, but overall these pieces did not stand out as significant contributions to the solo violin repertoire.

In future presentations, Hahn may want to bury the programmatic idea behind the six titles (“H-I-L-A-R-Y is for heart, immensity, love, art, reflexive, you”), worthy of a cheesy Hallmark card. Sometimes a little privacy about a work’s inspiration is a good thing.

Nevertheless, Hahn’s playing, an ideal mixture of intelligence, refinement, and ferocious technique, can lift up even mediocre music. With music of more potential–not to mention a more formidable partner in pianist Robert Levin–the rest of the program surpassed expectations. Levin, an early music specialist known for creating brilliant improvisations for his concerto cadenzas, took a fluid, inventive approach to works by Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. He challenged Hahn, pushing her sometimes reserved musical persona into new territory.

In Bach’s Sixth Sonata for violin and keyboard, BWV 1019, Levin’s left hand dragged just a bit behind the brisk tempo Hahn set. The effect was highly decorative, which extended into the second movement, set more at an Andante tempo rather than the Largo Bach indicated. Levin added embellishments to the keyboard part, played somewhat anachronistically on the modern Steinway, and in Bach’s fluid writing he found a quasi-improvisatory approach, especially in the central movement, for keyboard alone. The fourth movement, set at a drowsy pace, made a nice contrast with the rollicking gigue of the last movement, complete with a brief cadenza moment for Levin.

In Mozart’s Sonata in E-flat Major, K. 481, Levin provided a specialist’s variety of articulation, which enlivened the piece considerably. Levin was a consummate accompanist, never overwhelming Hahn’s solo lines or forcing her to make herself heard. She sounded, as a result, completely at ease throughout the evening. The slow movement had a beautiful nonchalance, and the concluding theme poked along amiably, reflecting an admirable decision not to go for speed only for the sake of speed.

Schubert’s Rondo Brillant in B-flat Major, D. 895, gave both musicians the chance to display their virtuoso credentials. Hahn brought a more bravura tone, after seeming to hold back much of the evening, and Levin’s hands drew forth more symphonic boldness from the Steinway.

The most exciting new music of the evening came from Levin alone, who performed Träume from 2012, a solo piece written for him by Hans Peter Türk. Written in memory of the composer’s late wife, it attempts to set to music the dreams his wife recorded in the final weeks of her struggle with cancer. Textures varied from the monophonic opening, in which a sighing minor third was prevalent, through a three-part arrangement decorated by right-hand stardust, to a section that called on Levin’s improvisatory talent. Here was a piece worth listening to many more times.

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