Review: Hilary Hahn Premieres Abril Partita in Recital

October 28, 2016, 1:17 PM · Hilary Hahn seems to have a knack for uncovering cleverly-composed music; lucky for us, she is drawing it out of so many current composers as well.

On Wednesday Hahn gave us a new treat: the world-premiere a solo violin partita by Spanish composer Antón García Abril, the fourth of Six Solo Partitas that Hahn commissioned him to write. (She premiered the first three last season.)

Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn.

The premiere was part of Hahn's recital Wednesday with pianist Robert Levin at Disney Hall, a performance which will be repeated over the next week in Washington D.C., Seattle and Chicago. The two played a combination of the new and old, with sonatas by Bach, Mozart and Schubert paired with the new work by Abril as well as a new work for piano by German-Romanian composer Hans Peter Türk.

Clearly the highlight of the evening was Hahn's world-premiere performance of Abril's Partita No. 4, "Art." Introducing the work from the stage, Hahn said she had commissioned six solo partitas from Abril after he wrote a piece called "Third Sigh" for her 2013 Grammy-winning project, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.

"I noticed that he had a real gift for polyphony in solo violin writing," she said, so she asked him to follow in the tradition of solo violin works written in six parts, such as J.S. Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas and Eugene Ysaye's Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27.

No little task, and no small shoes to fill: Without accompaniment, the violin must harmonize itself, which challenges the limits of a four-stringed, bowed instrument. And Bach's solo violin works are worshiped as a kind of "Bible" to the violinist; Ysaye's are also well-loved and well-revered.

Though Abril's pieces are called "Partitas," they are not dance suites as the term suggests; instead, Abril, 83, has written six single-movement pieces inspired by Hahn and named for her: "Heart; Immensity; Love; Art; Reflexive; You" -- "H-I-L-A-R-Y."

If that gets a little sentimental for you, the piece itself is well-honed and appealing, with an elegant modernity.

Partita No. 4 seems to pour forth from the start, with a figure that creates a feeling of inevitable flow, like water. It goes on to showcase beautiful harmonies and innovative ideas for self-harmonized violin. If Abril has a gift for polyphonic writing, Hahn has a gift for polyphonic playing, drawing a kaleidoscope of colors from that Vuillaume fiddle (that many still grumble should be a Strad).

Something else about her solo playing; despite the lack of any accompaniment, one never loses a sense of the rhythmic undercurrent. Whether she slows or accelerates, the pulse and direction remain clear. The piece had moments bursting with energy as well as repose, ending in a muted passage, capped with a curious chord. The audience rose to its feet in applause, with the composer joining Hahn onstage. Very well-received, and deservedly so. As a violinist, I hope that Hahn and Abril will make the sheet music for these Partitas available, and soon!

Hahn and Abril
Hilary Hahn and Antón García Abril

The first half of the concert featured Hahn and Levin playing sonatas by Bach and Mozart, beginning with Bach's Sonata No. 6 in G major, BWV 1019, a five-movement work originally conceived for harpsichord and violin. Played on a grand piano in a symphony hall, it's a different animal, and I found the piano to be a bit overwhelming in a piece that has so much dense and complex writing. This was definitely not a performance in the "period" vein, nor did it need to be; the genius of Bach is that it is meaningful when interpreted in a variety of ways. I enjoyed seeing these two artists negotiate its intricacies. Mozart's Sonata in E-flat major, K. 481 was full of elegant playing and well-shaped lines; still I longed for a more intimate setting for this music.

In the second half, Levin played the piece for piano that he commissioned from Türk, called "Träume," written following the death of the composer's wife and based on the dream diaries she wrote during her final years. It was a haunting piece, with spooky and swirling lines. A dark shadow of Brahms Lullaby seemed to pass through at one point, though I can't be sure. There was also anger and ferocity, and in the end the music seems to trail off into the dark. A moving piece, which seemed cloaked in loss and grief.

The recital concluded with an enthusiastic performance of music by Franz Schubert, his Rondo in B minor, D. 895.

And, happily, Hahn played some encores. The first, "Mercy" by Max Richter, can be found on the final track in her album In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores. Again, here is a well-crafted piece, in which the violinist seems to take a single note and look at it from many angles, then turns around three-note pattern like a diamond in the sun, reflecting it in various ways and at various speeds. (For those hoping to play Hahn's encores, look in December for the release of the sheet music, complete with her fingerings, bowings and performance notes.)

Hahn played a second encore, a gem one does not hear every day: "Cortége," a short piece by the short-lived, turn-of-the-20th-century French female composer Lili Boulanger.

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