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Pauline Lerner

Hilary Hahn in Recital

November 16, 2005 at 9:00 AM

I heard Hilary Hahn in recital on Nov. 13, and she was absolutely, incredibly fantastic!! I heard her earlier this year, but I liked her most recent performance better because the pieces she played were beautiful and showcased her technical and artistic virtuosity. She played most of the pieces with her long-time musical partner, pianist Natalie Zhu.

When I took my seat in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, I looked around. As always, I had bought a relatively inexpensive ticket, so I sat in one of the balconies (Peasant’s Heaven). I noticed new acoustic shields placed high above the stage, where they deflect sound waves and make the music sound richer and warmer. I looked down at the orchestra level seats before most of the crowd arrived, and I remembered something I had read by Hilary Hahn on her website. She had written a list of exercises for “non-gym rats.” One of them was running up and down the aisles of a concert hall when there’s no one there to see you. I did not see her running. When she came on stage, I had a great view of her playing the violin. Her technique was flawless. She played the most difficult passages so smoothly that everything looked easy. The audience was spellbound during the whole performance. I sensed that everyone was sitting on the edge of their seats, focusing intensely, and, at times, holding our collective breaths.

The first piece on the program was Ysaye’s Sonata No. 1 for Unaccompanied Violin. Her playing was sublime. Her tone was warm, rich, and sweet, bringing to my mind an image of honey flowing. Later in the piece, when she played in the lower registers, the image of Turkish coffee came into my mind. Sometimes, in my mind’s eye, I saw the dear man who was my childhood violin teacher, who loved to play this piece. The second movement was so beautiful that I didn’t want it to end. The Ysaye Sonata had a special connection for Hilary Hahn. For years, she had studied at the Curtis Institute with Jascha Brodsky, the last surviving student of Eugene Ysaye. Not only was her playing rich and sweet; it was dazzling in its technical virtuosity.

The second piece was Enesco Sonata No. 3 in A Minor for violin and piano “On Popular Romanian Themes.” Enesco wrote this sonata in the style of wild gypsy music. She played it with stunning virtuoso pyrotechnics. It took my breath away. I had images of gypsies in long skirts dancing wildly as they circled a bonfire with the full moon shining through bare tree branches. I’ve heard people criticize her playing because it is not technically dazzling. Her performance of this piece shoots down that theory. Wow!!

Playing this part of the concert was technically very demanding. All but stellar violinists would be exhausted by now. However, there was an intermission, and then more virtuoso playing of a different kind.

The second half of the recital started with Nathan Milstein’s Paganiniana. I have heard several recordings of this by virtuoso violinists, but Hilary Hahn gave it new life. I was entranced.

Then Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zhu playing Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in G Major, K. 301. This piece is featured in Hilary Hahn’s newest CD, and she discusses it in Listening Guides on her own website and her webpage on Deutsche Grammophon’s site This sonata is not violin music with piano accompaniment. Rather, the piano and the violin are equally important. Mozart, after all, excelled in playing both piano and violin, although he is remembered more as a pianist. In the Listening Guides, Natalie Zhu talks about “trust…equality of us as musicians…partnership,” and Hilary Hahn emphasizes the partnership, too. These two musicians have been playing together for about 10 years, and they seem like girlfriends having fun together. The photo on the CD cover portrays them as musical friends, and I had the same impression when I saw them. As they walked on and off stage, I could sometimes see Hilary Hahn tilt her head towards Natalie Zhu as she smiled and said a few words. They seemed comfortable together, like old friends, but their playing was fresh and exciting. This sonata is very “Mozart,” giving the sense of sweetness, smoothness, comfort, and order as in a child’s world. This piece did not have pyrotechnics, but it was very impressive in other ways. As Hilary Hahn said in one of her Listening Guides, the music is “delicate...[but not fragile …and it] requires finesse.” They certainly played it with finesse.

The last piece on the program was Beethoven’s Sonata in E Flat Major, and it was another tour de force. This sonata is very “Beethoven,” full of drama and intensity. As in the Mozart sonata, both the violin and the piano are important, and there is a lot of dialogue between the two instruments. However, the Beethoven sonata, unlike the Mozart sonata, is keyboard-driven.

The audience applause was tumultuous, and the musicians played two encores. Both were virtuoso show-off pieces arranged and played by legendary violinists: Heifetz’s arrangement of March from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges and Kreisler’s arrangement of Tango by Albeniz. These are both really fun to listen to, and the audience was enraptured. I especially liked the Tango. Hilary Hahn’s artistry was dazzling, especially when she played softly. We were all spellbound. The ending was dazzling, like intricately spun glass.

Overall, Hilary Hahn’s playing was warm, full, rich, resonant, and always of high clarity. Her range of expression was impressive, and so was her virtuoso technique, whether fiery or subtle.

After the concert, four of Hilary Hahn’s CDs were on sale in the lobby, and she and Natalie Zhu were there to sign them. I bought two of them, but I can’t say that my self-restraint was wonderful because I already own the other two. Besides getting Hilary Hahn’s autograph, I got a glimpse of her personality. I’ve read a lot of what she has written on her website, and she is just what I thought she’d be like. She comes across as sweet, young, high spirited, somewhat impish, and very child-oriented. Just ahead of me in line was a girl about six years old, dressed up in an elegant little dress. I heard the Violin Virtuoso say to the little girl, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to come to your birthday party. I have to leave before then. My birthday is in November, too. What date is your birthday?” Hearing this, I felt relaxed enough to make a silly, girlish remark to Hilary Hahn. I said, “I didn’t see you running up and down the aisles for exercise.” She replied, “No, I was too tired, but I did practice yoga last night.”

Now I have Hilary Hahn’s autographs for souvenirs, but, more important, I have heard her stunning artistry and her conversation with a six year old who has a birthday in November.

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