Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa in an exciting recital

Tartini/Kreisler, Beethoven, Charles Ives, J S Bach, George Antheil, Chopin: Hilary Hahn (violin). Valentina Lisitsa (piano). Cadogan Hall, London 18.5,2011 (KC)

Tartini/Kreisler: Variations on a Theme of Corelli
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Op 24 ‘Spring’
Ives: Sonata for Violin & Piano No. 4 S. 63 ‘Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting’
Bach: Partita No 1 in B minor for solo violin BWV 1002
Antheil: Sonata for Piano & Violin No. 1
Chopin: Nocturne No. 2 in E flat
Kreisler: Schön Rosmarin

Physically, these highly accomplished ladies make an oddly-matched pair. Hilary Hahn is dark and on the short side; Valentina Lisitsa is blonde and a head & shoulders taller. Yet the two have been touring together for over four years, since 2007. What keeps them together?

The two complement each other. Hilary Hahn has a coruscating vitality and near-relentless drive, with rare moments of softness and relaxation, whereas Valentina Lisitsa combines an imperious sweep with aristocratic poise and sensitivity. This distinction was apparent in the two solo pieces of the evening: Hahn’s Bach Partita and Lisitsa’s Chopin Nocturne.

In Hahn’s hands, Bach’s Partita was brilliantly played, with consummate, vigorous, on-going attack. It was an approach to Bach that took no hostages, gave itself no time for phrasing, nor sought any space for rest or re-appraisal. There was nothing restorative or new-breathed in her repeats.  The interpretation was formidable. At 31, Hilary Hahn can afford to add some self-exploration to her formidable technique.

Lisitsa’s performance of the Chopin Nocturne was, to my taste, sublime and faultless. This was the most captivating performance of this familiar work I have ever heard – one contrived by a man of crisp intellect, expressing a serenity of outlook with exquisite aristocratic sensibility. The performer was a woman completely at home in this milieu. Her pace was quite fleet, but with no sense of hurry – let alone anything as vulgar as haste or as demeaning as self-indulgent delay. She allowed all the time in the world for the Nocturne to waft through the skies at its own alert-minded pace. She gave it light and shade firmly – with the merest flick of an instruction through her fingers. She disdained heavy rubato as a medium for emphasizing emotion unnecessarily. Instead, she lightened or gave weight to the touch of her fingers on the piano keys – a matter of variations in quality of sound produced from physical contact. She conveyed heartbreak or release simply through touch.

The remaining items on the programme involved both musicians. The ‘Spring’ Sonata had pressure and charm – a young man’s eagerness to brook no delay, together with an engagement with Nature’s burgeoning gladness, noting the delights of the wayside as one passed by.

The Charles Ives had charm, too. Hilary Hahn unbent a little – in respect and response to Ives’ memory of long-past days of his youth and youthfulness, it would seem. Her tone softened; her pace relaxed; there were slight pauses to take stock. The ‘Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting’ recognised and recalled the happy, harmless chatter of small children on a day out and the simple seriousness of the hymns they joyfully sang.

Antheil’s Sonata for Piano & Violin was brilliant. This is the music of a then- ‘Europeanised’ American, living in Paris, on the fringes of the ‘Les Six’ group.  The two outer movements are abrasively and (over-?) repetitively ‘modern’ – very much reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Les Noces and excellent fare for Hilary Hahn’s relish of repetitive, abrasive, tightly rhythmic addressings of her taut bow to her more malleable strings, not to mention the hair-raising opportunities Antheil gave her for virtuoso pyrotechnics. Hahn was in her element, here – and Valentina Lisitsa was no mean companion. The interior movements had more musical experimentation and greater variety of mood. Here, Antheil was more out to express than to shock. Both women seized the various opportunities – a high melody on the violin, for example, liaising with the piano, in a different key. The Funèbre: lento espressivo glanced at several velveteen tonal effects, arousing interest as to Antheil’s potential as a composer of substance rather than an entertaining playboy.

This was an evening of musical excitement and distinction.

Ken Carter