CD Review: HILARY HAHN PLAYS BACH

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by Jim Allen on September 27, 2018

in CD-DVD

BACH TO BRILLIANCE

It’s now practically lore that violinist Hilary Hahn decided that her debut album would not only be solos, but partitas and a sonata by Bach, works that have been held as the zenith of violin composition and the most intangible of objectives for a newcomer recitalist. It was a move that raised a few eyebrows, since some musicians (cellist Mstislav Rostropovich being a famous example) wait until midlife or even later before taking Bach’s solo works into the studio.

Yet at 17, she not only pulled it off, but became a performer that all other violinists aspire to be when they tackle Bach. As sterling as her work was in 1997, her latest album — on which she records the rest of the set, 2 sonatas and one partita — is frankly jaw-dropping. You won’t find a higher level of a superlative technique by one who also makes the music sing (Bach can sound awfully mechanical in the wrong hands). It’s truly a glorious, elegant, and powerful performance, done with authenticity, profundity, and keen understanding of the material.

The CD, which will be released on October 5 — her first time with Decca — is not for background music. This is an experience to be savored. Scaling the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, composed in 1720, requires not only a firm grasp of violin technique and a propensity for soul-searching.

Hahn understands that written scores were not meant to serve as rigid guides to performance — sounds, speeds, and phrasings — but as a departure point for music making, at the heart of which lays her own sense of personal expression. In the process, Bach has been transformed from a quaint historical figure into a seminal composer whose music fully comes alive only because it is performed with the kind of spontaneous, quasi-improvisational freedom that has its best modern equivalent in jazz. This is especially noticeable in the Partita no. 1: It’s a set of three suites composed of dance-based movements of, among others, allemande, courante, sarabande, and bourrée (a gigue and a chaconne is in the other Partitas on her first album). Because of Hahn’s emotional depth, the listening experience doesn’t make your feet dance, it makes your soul dance.

In an interview on radio, Hahn said, “Bach is, for me, the touchstone that keeps my playing honest. Keeping the intonation pure in double stops, bringing out the various voices where the phrasing requires it, crossing the strings so that there are not inadvertent accents, presenting the structure in such a way that it’s clear to the listener without being pedantic – one can’t fake things in Bach, and if one gets all of them to work, the music sings in the most wonderful way.”

Ah, there it is.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

photo by Michael Patrick O’Leary

Hilary Hahn Plays Bach
Decca Classics
16 tracks | 74:52
released October 5, 2018
available at Amazon and iTunes

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