Hahn provides a season highlight with intimate and individual Bach

Mon Mar 20, 2023 at 2:05 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Hilary Hahn performed solo violin works of Bach Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Twenty-five years ago a young violinist made her Chicago debut at Mandel Hall. Writing in the Tribune, John von Rhein noted that the 18-year-old musician “is the real thing—a prodigy who is obviously motivated by a deep love and understanding of music.” He added that “she knows exactly what she is about as a musician and has ‘Serious Artist’ written all over her.”

Those perceptive observations proved prophetic and Hilary Hahn has since gone on to enjoy a successful international career as one of the world’s top violinists. And while other musicians indulge in flashy stage garb, or get involved in extraneous side-issues or this or that passing trend, Hahn has remained true to herself, unerringly focused on performing the world’s finest music on the highest level.

Currently in the middle season of a three-year term as CSO artist in residence, Hahn presented a concert of Bach’s solo violin works Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Music of Bach has figured prominently in Hahn’s career from the jump with her debut recording (Sony) of the German master’s solo works for violin. That CD, taped at age 17, remains one of the finest Bach discs in the catalog, put across with a freshness and spontaneity allied to a technical mastery that belied her years. 

Those qualities were winningly manifest on Sunday where Hahn’s performances of three works for solo violin, in addition to being nearly faultless technically, consistently conveyed the contrapuntal invention and expressive depths of this endlessly fascinating music.

More than anything else these were individual and communicative Bach performances—varied with a flicker of vibrato, shift of rhythmic emphasis, or subtle dynamic turn that always kept one alert and listening, wholly avoiding any hint of the contrapuntal sewing machine.

Hahn began with the Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001, which set an intimacy of approach for the afternoon. Playing with a pure tone, she took a spacious tempo for the opening Adagio, and brought lithe rhythmic flexibility to the ensuing Fuga, built inexorably to a fiery coda. Her gentle half-tones and varied dynamics in the Siciliano drew one into this ruminative music. The performance was rounded off with a fiery Presto that managed to maintain an intimacy of scale.

Hahn’s Bach playing feels so natural in its expressive poise that the subtleties of her bowing, pacing and dynamics can be easily overlooked—as with the easy, songful style she brought to the Allemande that opens the Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002.  She conveyed the light, dancing essence of the Courante—accelerating excitingly in the bravura double, which elicited premature applause—as well as the earthy stomp of the Bourrée. The doubles were deftly marked throughout, not just with faster tempi but an extra emphasis in accents and phrasings.

What is perhaps most notable about Hahn’s Bach are the slow movements, where she is at her finest. In the Sarabande of BWV 1002—and indeed throughout the afternoon—her hushed playing captured the singular blend of sadness, yearning and nobility of expression that characterize Bach’s greatest slow movements. 

And so to the Partita No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1004, and the Everest of the set. The somber Allemande set the stage with Hahn giving it an aura of expectancy, and a kind of uneasy explorative quality. The dance was emphasized in the buoyant accents of the ensuing Courante, and the Sarabande rendered with a wide array of dynamic detailing, as if one was eavesdropping on a private conversation. The Gigue provided contrast with its burst of Terpsichorean vitality.

The four shortish movements lead to the mighty Chaconne that concludes the work. After sharply accented playing in the opening measures, Hahn began the ascent in a daringly hushed style, slowly and patiently increasing the volume and intensity with the growing welter of complex counterpoint. She brought due repose to the extraordinary reverie at the halfway mark of the movement, and tackled the build of multiple voicings to the finale with technical gleam, purpose and a sense of inevitability. 

The immediate ovations and audience cheers from an unusually packed Symphony Center at the conclusion of the Chaconne brought the violinist back out. “I’ve got one more in me,” she said and charmingly tossed off a vivacious rendition of the Preludio from the Partita No. 3 in E major, here making an ideal coda to a memorable concert.

Let us hope that Hahn finishes the Bach set with a program of the three remaining solo violin works before her Chicago term comes to an end.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Hahn provides a season highlight with intimate and individual Bach”

  1. Posted Mar 20, 2023 at 4:14 pm by Chuck

    It was spellbinding and sublime. As usual, technique totally in service to musicality. I don’t think she can play any other way. A musician of the highest order. Looking forward to her upcoming CSO concert.

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