Robert Levin strode down from our masthead (artistic advisor) for a Celebrity Series joint recital Saturday night at Jordan Hall with genre-busting headliner Hilary Hahn. Resplendent in a long glittering creation from the “high-fashion collection brand” Theia, Hahn looked every bit the denizen of magazine covers, while Levin’s all-black, pajama-comfy Chinese silk damask jacket and trousers hardly hinted at his forthcoming intensity.
This concert of works mainly listing piano first constituted something of a tribute to Hahn’s willingness to place music over show. She was confident enough of her stature, and her chops, to choose works for the first half where the piano dominates. Bach’s Sonata No. 6, originally for harpsichord and violin, found the two players in telepathic accord about how the work should go on modern instruments. That refined approach on this last stop in the pair’s 12-city tour encompassed stately purity of tone from Hahn’s 1865 Vuillaume, which in row O sounded initially perhaps a bit brittle and out of the groove, alongside a lapidary touch from Levin, whose nose for nuance made every gesture engaging, especially his ornamentations in the repeats and his organlike opening in the third movement Allegro. In the fourth movement Adagio, Hahn’s steady strokes supplicated with the fervor of Gospel hymns as she soared onto operatic realms. The final Allegro danced with splendiferous glide and sway, and after the big repeat, sparks flew from both instruments.
Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin K. 481 begins with scales and trills, sometimes in octaves, and with exquisite melting cadences from the keyboard. We didn’t need to hear the violin in this movement even though it sometimes gets the tune. In the Adagio Hahn first commented with open simplicity over Levin’s lilting lines; his ornaments in this movement were entirely organic with the composer and his own imagination. Finally the violin’s big moment came, and we understood for a while why she chose this piece, in which much of the time she is commenter or indeed onlooker. Levin’s improvised rippling cadenza into the final Allegro encapsulated the entire piece, astonishingly. The paired seasoned pros, a generation apart, conveyed a great gift.
Antón Garcia Abril’s sixth of Six Partitas for solo violin (2015) gave us our first real chance to understand the fuss about Hilary and decide whether she would get our vote. (She does.) The composer’s tribute to Bach, whom he evoked, and to Hahn his dedicatee, produced amazement akin to one’s first hearing the Chaconne. The violinist’s steady command completely surmounted challenges that for mortals would have demanded cosmic struggle. Torrents of tone, perfect chords, and unabashed expressivity made a compelling case for Abril. A fearless force was with Hahn as she tore into the single movement of well-differentiated episodes that conjured not only Bach but also other great exponents of the fiddle. The composer accepted an extremely generous standing ovation, a rarity for any living composer. Next time Hahn comes to town she might consider bringing all six of the set, along with Bach’s.
We had heard Levin play Hans Peter Türk’s Träume for solo piano (that performance dedicated to the composer’s late wife) in 2012, for his recital swan song upon retirement from the Harvard music department. This time a stronger Levin brought welcome advocacy to the work’s many moods, from the opening abstract minor-mode doorbell motif to dreamy condolence for the loss of a spouse. In between we got a celebration of Levin’s daemonic glee in playing a great many notes.
For listeners in four of the cities on the tour, the concert ended with the Kreutzer Sonata. The others, including Boston, got Schubert’s Rondo brillant. This work is not from the composer’s top drawer, although it is one Levin and Hahn each love to play and one to which audiences respond. With echoes of both the Marche Militaire and the Wanderer Fantasy, it waltzes rather without destination over its 15 or so minutes. Dizzying virtual horncalls alternate with languishing repose. Much of the piano part, with Alberti bass and chords, sounds accompanimental. The violin stands proud and heroic as the curtain comes down on the fantasy.
The audience’s awarding of ovations for valor elicited three encores. Hahn asked Max Richter for a short piece that could “speak to people immediately.” He complied with “Mercy,” a simple song with pop chord changes in the piano, and this minimalist hybrid seemed to warm Hahn’s heart. The next encores, Lili Boulanger’s “Cortège” and “Nocturne”, combined jazzy Gallic wit with invention, not to mention piano parts of genuine interest, where Boulanger disciple Levin was fully in his element.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.