Inspiring Beethoven from Hilary Hahn and Andreas Haefliger at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Hilary Hahn (violin), Andreas Haefliger (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 12.1.2022. (CS)

Hilary Hahn (c) O.J. Slaughter

Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.9 in A Op.47, ‘Kreutzer’; Violin Sonata No.10 in G Op.96

There was something very gratifying about the ‘sold out’ icon beside the programme for this violin recital as displayed on Wigmore Hall’s website.  For if, on a sombre January evening – when the ongoing miseries of Omicron and the Westminster omnishambles are dampening spirits – 550 music-lovers are inspired to venture out into the gloom to attend a performance of Beethoven’s final two sonatas for violin and piano, then there must yet be some hope for humanity, after all.

That there is indeed ‘hope’ was more than confirmed by the musical arguments and artistry of violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Andreas Haefliger.  And, who better to reassure us than Beethoven, the composer of the ‘Ode to Joy’, that immortal message of promise and faith; the composer who was to Hans Keller’s mind ‘not ‘just’ a great composer, but one of the most towering minds in the history of culture and civilization – humanity has not, in demonstrable fact, thrown up anything greater’.

How persuasively Hahn and Haefliger made us believe in Keller’s eulogistic declaration.  The first four unaccompanied bars of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata were both impeccably tuned and incredibly focused and contained – and the piano dynamic, receding back from the initial forte double-stop, was scrupulously observed; but such discipline somehow seemed to bristle with portents of the drama, anger, angst to come.  And, when such sentiments were released in the Presto, they cohered into engaging, eloquent extended statements, conceived in long, unbroken breaths, creating a grandeur and a dignified sweep.  This was music that announced and enjoyed its own stature, without ever swaggering.

Both musicians found variety of tone and timbre to match Beethoven’s mercurial musical temperaments.  The complex structure of the first movement was communicated with absolute lucidity.  I was surprised at times by the solidity and projection of Hahn’s sound, but the assertiveness was absolutely ‘right’, and matched by Haefliger’s flair and nuance.  I wondered at times if the duo were pushing the tempo a bit too hard?  It can be difficult to negotiate all the ‘corners’, to integrate those sudden shifts and subito piano withdrawals, if the pace is too reckless … and, there were a couple of daring hit and miss moments from Haefliger.  But, really, all in the Hall were just swept up by the expressive rhetoric.

The syncopated teasing of the theme which opens the slow movement variations seemed designed, paradoxically, to both relax the listener’s muscles and ignite their anticipation of development release and foraging.  As Haefliger unfolded the first statement, Hahn turned to face the audience, her facial expression implacably self-contained; when the violin entered the dialogue, her cantabile was beautifully elegant, but the incipient fullness promised expansion.  The leggiermente of the second variation was capriciously delicate, vanishing at the close into a stratospheric Mendelssohnian ether.  Minor and major tonalities tugged emotively at each other, the twists and turns, however familiar, made to sound spontaneous, the complex communicated with simple directness.  The contrast of simple motivic utterance and expressive elaboration in the final episodes of the last variation cohered brilliantly.  The concluding Presto was a commandingly controlled maelstrom of virtuosity: finesse that did not exclude, indeed relished, fire.

Beethoven’s Op.96 Sonata was the first of the composer’s violin sonatas that I played.  I had found a copy lying in a dusty cupboard in a damp practice room in an outbuilding of the rather uninspiring school that I attended – where an out-of-tune piano languished unloved – when I took it upon myself to catalogue the neglected contents of the said cupboard.  I confess that I filched it, played it, and still have that rather musty musical relic.

Hahn and Haefliger gave me a Proustian boost of the sense of discovery that my teenage-self experienced when playing that delicate and fresh motif – just four notes, a non-descript intervallic rise and fall, initiated by a carefree trill – that opens the first movement.  This Allegro moderato was wonderfully free, Hahn’s bowing action so silky as the violin’s scalic triplets unfolded.  One marvelled anew at the simplicity of Beethoven’s melodies and motifs – just scales and arpeggios essentially – and the transcendence that such means acquire and communicate.  The venturing into warm flat tonalities and then the tonic minor in the development was just as comforting and awakening, respectively, as Beethoven surely intended, suggesting growth and maturity; and here the motivic rhetoric was more assertive.  When that opening trill and rise-fall motif was repeated in the coda, the purposefulness of Hahn’s phrasing was utterly persuasive, slipping downwards, then rising up again in an exuberant cadential flourish, and finally concluding with an aspiring scale that closes in the warm embrace of the violin’s four strings.

I think I ‘feel’ the Adagio espressivo a little more expansively than Hahn and Haefliger did on this occasion.  This movement seems to me to be a fellow of those marvellous late quartet Adagios.  But, that’s not to deny the compelling stream of melody that the duo sent spilling through Wigmore Hall, nor the lovely mezza voce candour of Hahn’s tone.  There was no lingering at the close: the Scherzo took flight with spirited staccato assertiveness, crisp and taut, and the Trio flew by, almost too brisk perhaps to make a mark.  But, perhaps that’s the point: the movement seems to serve as an ‘up-beat’, or preparatory breath, into the multi-sectioned Poco Allegretto that concludes the Sonata.  Again, the tempo was fearless when it was fitting for it to be so – and in the first development of the theme both Haefliger’s and Hahn’s triplet mordants were so swift and clean that there seemed to be magic in the air – and measured when spaciousness was required.  The complex architecture made absolute sense: the simplicity of the close was joyful and uplifting.

The duo’s encore was Max Richter’s Mercy which Hahn commissioned for her 2013 disc In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.  This beautifully tranquil miniature starts from modest, calm beginnings, then expands naturally, achingly and compellingly over the piano’s rotating passacaglia – how mesmerising Hahn’s strong, slithery bow action and wonderfully judged control of tone, timbre and dynamic – before coming to rest on a bare fifth, with unassuming honesty and peace.

Claire Seymour

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