Impeccable. Clean. Unpretentious. These words come to mind when one contemplates Hilary Hahn’s artistry. They are, ultimately, factors of a greater, essential quality — honesty. In any music, but especially in the solo violin repertoire of J.S. Bach, this centered, pure quality is an absolute requirement. Hahn played works of that master for her first solo recital at Tanglewood, which richly rewarded the capacity audience.
Hahn took the Ozawa Hall stage in a blue-grey dress; equal parts formal and whimsical, it would turn out to be a subtle emblem of the exploration to come. Beginning with the Sonata in A Minor, BWV 1003, Hahn entranced from the start. The opening Grave movement spins a tapestry of unfolding lines which Hahn crafted as an extension of a single idea rather than a cast of characters. The resulting creation became a signpost of the journey to come. For the Fuga, another guest joined the violinist onstage — or so one would think if listening with eyes closed, so perfectly delineated did she intertwine the voices. She added subtle, cutting attacks even to non-broken chords to preserve the multi-voiced effect, among numerous other masterful techniques. But everything served the music and never became just show. This honesty obviously shines forth from the inner depths of Hahn’s personality. She felt it necessary, when she had to take a brief leave from the hot and humid stage lights to grab a tissue, to assure her audience she would be right back, as if the public would not have waited for her even if the absence would have been an hour.
More than a mere breath catcher after the epic fugue, the Andante sounded texturally rich as well, plaintive and passionate in turns, with a magical effect arrived at by the execution of the accompanying pulse figures surrounding the melody. The concluding Allegro exemplified its AABB form, as annotator Robert Kirzinger observed, down to the smallest detail of phrase and note, giving a spiraling, fractal-like quality that enhanced the intellectual enjoyment of what could in the hands of a lesser composer have been a straightforward energetic close.
The first half continued with the famous Partita in E Major, BWV 1006. Hahn’s prelude movement contained aggressive fortes and delicate pianos, undulating in sea-like waves. She did no “milking” of the ultimate skyward gesture, a singular extroverted moment which we warmly received. In the Loure (a rare dance movement for Bach), Hahn drew in the slow triplet time an image of Baroque dance floor intrigue. The entrance of the Gavotte, which so often presents in a bold, pompous manner, snuck in, again exhibiting the restraint and craft of Hahn’s interpretation. Hahn navigated through the gentle pulses of the Minuets and the quick Bourée, landing in the Gigue as an inevitable conclusion. Here, everything followed strict tempo (as it should be for a dance, after all), with Hahn permitting herself just a slight ‘landing’ at the end, saving the best wit for last.
The second half the monumental Sonata in C Major, BWV 1005. A colleague of mine (biased as we both are as organists) stated that there was no music before Bach, and none after. Even to a devotee, the statement sounds unduly narrow, but when one is immersed in his solo repertoire — be it for keyboard, cello, or violin — for that one moment at least, one believes.
The C Major’s opening Adagio rocked along through a calm centeredness, ending like an attacca (which is to be expected when it is considered a prelude for the fugue). The enormous Fuga unfolded in its unfolding, akin to the computer animations of 4-dimensional objects we can conceive but cannot fully perceive. The fugue involves a primary subject and a secondary, which inverts the first. Hahn made this reflective construction clear in her interpretation. She adjusted the tempo at one point only, presenting the subject somewhat haltingly in the middle section when it descends to the lowest range, clarifying the counterpoint and labeling the section itself as worthy of note. Her later reference to this temporal tweaking came when the subject was in the high range, creating a registral mirror based on temporal relationships, echoing the construction of the fugue itself. As the younger set may say: Mind. Blown.
The Largo movement brought the mind back to the initial Grave movement from the A Minor, bookending the recital. It is unclear if Hahn made the choice deliberately, but after witnessing so many masterstrokes of conception and execution, one believed in her plan. The closing Allegro assai saw melodies fly above and crawl below a mid-range motor, and Hahn demarcated each repeat with an extra burst of energy. Sparks flew.
After three curtain calls, Hahn graciously offered the soulful Sarabande from the D Minor Partita as an encore, the perfect nightcap to an evening spent imbibing the timeless glory of Bach’s music exquisitely presented by a kindred old soul.
Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.