An Outstanding Recital by Hilary Hahn and Cory Smythe Expertly Mixes Classic and Contemporary Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schnittke, Cage, David Lang, J.S. Bach, Debussy, Auerbach and Schumann: Hilary Hahn (violin), Cory Smythe (piano), Wigmore Hall London 21.3.2015 (CS)

Alfred Schnittke: Stille Nacht
John Cage: Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard
David Lang: light moving
J.S. Bach: Partita No.3 in E major for solo violin BWV1006
Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor
Lera Auerbach: Speak, Memory
Schumann: Violin Sonata No.1 in A minor Op.105

This recital by Hilary Hahn and Cory Smythe was notable for the American violinist’s probing musical thought and expressive self-assurance; supported by Smythe’s intelligent and precise accompaniments, Hahn crafted a performance of the utmost refinement and poise.  The performers presented a diverse programme, but Hahn inhabited each musical world with composure and apt sentiment, and revealing the innate links between modern miniatures and major classics of the canon.  Whether she was communicating the intricacies of a Baroque masterpiece, the surging passions of a Romantic sonata, or the subtle arguments of a newly commissioned ‘encore-piece’, Hahn’s round, focused tone was employed to create elegant, persuasive phrases.  Her technique is flawless: the intonation is true, the bowing effortlessly even – time and again, as she stroked the string through long phrases, I was astonished by the strength and purity of tone that she conjured from the final few inches of her bow.

Alfred Schnittke’s 1978 violin-and-piano arrangement of the carol ‘Stille Nacht’ – which was composed as a Christmas present for violinist Gidon Kremer – characteristically mixes old and new in ways which provoke questions and debates.  So much of Schnittke’s music implicitly protests against the privations of life under the Soviet regime and this miniature, too, presents challenging arguments: Kremer caused public disquiet when he performed the work in Austria, where Schnittke’s ‘distortions’ of Franz Gruber’s Christmas hymn were considered violations of a sacrosanct national ‘anthem’.  If Schnittke intends us to question the traditions that the carol embodies and perpetuates, Hahn’s voicing of the composer’s ‘protest’ was cool and controlled: the double-stopped presentation of the theme was smooth and simple, and as the violinist veered into the dissonance-laced developments she maintained the fluency of the idiom despite the disharmonious disruptions of the familiar melody.  Smythe’s deep accompaniment tolled funereally; he then led the violin in a clangorous dialogue, Hahn echoing the piano’s melody a semi-tone apart: there was strange beauty in these distortions.

The controlled precision of Hahn’s playing lent itself perfectly to the microscopic exploration of fixed sonorities and rhythmic proportions that John Cage undertakes in his Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard.  Composed in 1950, before the composer embraced aleatoricism, Cage experiments with what he terms the ‘gamut’ technique in which a gamut formed of a carefully prepared sequence of tones, intervals and chords is used to create melodies with harmonic backgrounds which do not relate or function in a traditional sense.  Hahn’s vibrato-less tone emphasised the architecture clarity of the score and the emotional detachment of the unfolding gamuts; her touch was light but the tone was pure, and the violin’s gentle harmonics sang cleanly against Smythe’s more sonorous bell-like accompaniment.  While there were no dramatic gestures, the performers movingly conveyed the quiet intensity of the work.

Hahn’s fierce commitment to contemporary music has recently manifested itself in a 2-disc recording for Deutsche Grammophon, In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores (released in 2013), which was the result of the violinist’s decision to commission 26 living composers to write an ‘encore’ piece for violin and piano of approximately five minutes length (a competition was held to choose encore number 27, that drew over 400 entries).  Hahn has explained: ‘To me, the question of classical music engaging with living composers answers itself. … We need music to describe every era and a multitude of ever-evolving ideas.  Music can only be written by living composers – anything can be played any time, but pieces are written by individuals, while they are alive.  So living composers are essential.”

One of the living composers who contributed to the project was the American composer David Lang.  He has described the genesis of light moving: ‘Long before they were titans of American music, Philip Glass and Steve Reich were young composers – underappreciated, underpaid, and living in New York. Together they started a furniture-moving company to make ends meet, and they called it Chelsea Light Moving. I have always loved this name. Partly I love the poetic image of the ever-changing light dappling the streets of Chelsea. But I also love the other meaning: “We’re composers! No heavy lifting!” I think you can hear from the gentle propulsiveness of my piece Light Moving why it reminds me of those early days in New York.’

light moving is a tightly focused orb of kinetic energy.  Embodying a deceptive simple idea, it requires considerable virtuosity and thus highlighted Hahn’s technical facility and ease as well as her immense musical concentration.  It was hypnotic and somewhat unsettling.  Issues of movement and space continued to be explored in the ‘Preludio’ of Bach’s E major Partita for solo violin: Hahn’s crafting of the architectural form was superlative but also deeply expressive: there was no sense of anything ‘mechanical’ in the repetitive patterns and shapes, as endless melody flowed from the violinist’s fingertips.  The ‘Loure’ began as a graceful courtly dance but the modulations to minor tonalities inspired an increase in rhythmic nuance and emotive inflection – always well-judged; the Gavotte was bright and fleet, but the episodes built intently to the final double-stopped exploration which was bold and declamatory, and which imbued the final repetition of the dance theme with stature and majesty.  Hahn found a unique character for each Menuet and for the Bourée but simultaneously made the chain of dances cohere into a seamless whole.  She combined sensitivity with wit and the final Gigue was full of joy.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor followed the interval and here Hahn’s tone ranged from incandescent to shadowy, passing through just about every hue in between.  Not a single phrase, or motif, was unconsidered; every gesture was delivered with care and insight.  Smythe’s chords which open the Allegro vivo established a receptive, curious mood; Hahn joined the piano line seamlessly, and both were launched on a sinuous thematic and harmonic journey.  Passionate outbursts flashed and gleamed, harmonics sang truly, rhythms swayed: there was both gaiety and sadness, jocularity and gravity.  The trilling leaps at the start of the Intermède were swift and exuberant, like the popping of a champagne cork.  Each note of the racing triplets of the Finale: très anime was precise and clear, the celebratory passages gleaming with excitement; the subsequent jazzy interlude touched deeper undertones.

In Debussy’s work, and in Schumann’s Sonata No.1 in A minor which ended the recital (in place of the advertised work, Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem), Smythe was the perfect accompanist: totally secure technically, he was able to support with discernment, knowing when to make a more forceful statement or interjection, when to retreat.  In Debussy’s Sonata, in particular – and given the complexities of the form and rhythm which destabilise the dialogue between violin and piano – Smythe’s anticipation of Hahn’s phrasing was impressive and reassuring.  Both players generated much excitement in Schumann’s sonata but there was grace and charm too.  Here, I would have liked Smythe occasionally to push the piano to the fore, to unsettle his own elegant finesse in order to match the committed intensity and resonance of Hahn’s playing.

There was one other work, not advertised in the programme, placed between the Debussy and Schumann sonatas: this was Lera Auerbach’s Speak, Memory, one of the afore-mentioned ‘encore’ commissions, which anticipated – in a more tormented manner – the Romantic yearning of Schumann.  Hahn is a passionate advocate for the music of the modern age; but, in this recital she showed that she is no less a persuasive voice for the power of music of whatever style and period to uplift, challenge and transform.

Claire Seymour

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