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S&H Recital review

Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Saint-Saëns: Hilary Hahn (violin), Natalie Zhu (piano), Wigmore Hall, Saturday November 24th, 2001 (SHJ & DW)


Hilary Hahnís outstanding November recital proved that the young Americanís growing reputation is very well deserved, but it nevertheless took Hahn some time to settle into the intimacy of the Wigmore Hall. Brahmsí Violin Sonata no 2 in A op.100 was unmemorable and understated, and Hahn seemed afraid of taking risks; portamento and lyrical passion were notable by their absence. Hahnís generally secure intonation was let down by some uncomfortably sharp G-string playing Ė a peculiarity which occurred a number of times throughout the recital.

After this somewhat tentative start, Hahn relaxed into her programme with panache and style. Bachís Solo Violin Sonata no 1 in G minor BWV1001 - as released on her legendary all-Bach debut CD in 1997 - was immaculate, Hahn successfully achieving a perfect balance of the individual voices within the texture. Her sense of line was decisive yet beautiful, and the chordal sections of the fugue were stunningly clean and expressive.

Mozartís Violin Sonata in F K377 demonstrated the superbly full-bodied sound of which Hahn (playing on a Vuillaume violin) is capable. Although the sound could have been more varied on occasion, Hahnís complete control and technical mastery ensured that her playing penetrated to every corner of the hall.

As with the Brahms sonata, Saint-Saënsí Sonata no 1 in D minor op 75 required more passion and spontaneity than Hahn was prepared to give. A little extra variation in phrasing would have enhanced what was already a poised and tonally beautiful interpretation. Her stage presentation suffered from the same constriction Ė walking on and off-stage seemed to be a subdued and formulaic process, which added a certain visual numbness to the proceedings.

Pianist Natalie Zhu was a superlative partner where the music demanded it (an astonishing violin-piano unison passage in the Saint-Saëns sonata lingers in the memory), and a sensitive, unobtrusive accompanist elsewhere; intricate passagework - notably in the Mozart sonata - was dispatched with nonchalant ease.

One thing is still unclear - why does Hahn have such an aversion to virtuosity? Even her encores on this occasion included works by Bach and Stravinsky, rather than showpieces of Paganini or Sarasateís genre. It is hard to believe that someone of Hahnís technical accomplishment would turn away from such sweetmeats, yet to date her discography consists solely of heavyweight musical works, including several of the great concerti. Perhaps this is very clever planning; Hahn took an enormous musical gamble by releasing a debut disc of Bach, but the success of such a bold statement has reinforced her credentials as a musician of the highest calibre, leaving her free to explore the violin repertoire without fear of being accused of frivolity. Hilary Hahn is already one of the most exciting young violinists of the current generation, but once she achieves a greater freedom of spontaneity and passion, she has the potential to become a very great violinist indeed.

Simon Hewitt Jones & David Worswick

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