Hahn and Milstein solo Bach

November 29, 2019, 11:56 AM · How would you compare the G minor Sonata 1 Adagio played by Hillary Hahn

and Nathan Milstein

Replies (16)

Edited: November 29, 2019, 2:15 PM · Interesting. Hahn is carefully sculpted and has a lot of nice detail. Special attention paid to harmony, although there is one jarring phrase entry that is out of tune with the previous one. For all that, it is very slow-- so much so, that it loses the character of speech and gets a bit bogged down. (1 minute longer than Milstein, if that matters.)

Milstein is clearly more interested in making the phrases speak, and is much freer in rhythm in order to make that happen. Not every detail adds up consistently, I think-- this was a live performance? So maybe some risks that didn't quite make the cut. But more what I would hope a master musician would be fussing around with AFTER he could have learned to play it like Hahn.

FWIW, I have a theory on the tempo of the movement, which may be part of what steers to Milstein. The first movements of a minor and C Major both go attacca into the fugue. The g-minor is the only one that doesn't, and so Bach marks the fugue alla breve. He doesn't need to on the others-- they use the same logic Handel uses in his orchestral suites, where the French Overture tumbles into a fugato section that has the same underlying pulse. The trick, then, is to find a tempo where the heavily-subdivided quarter-notes of the Adagio will be identical to the heavily-subdivided half-notes of the Fugue. This makes the fugue a hair more relaxed than some play it, and forces a different sort of expression from the Adagio. Something more like a funeral march than a dreamy meditation. The rolling chords could be something like the drumrolls hinted at in the Eroica 2nd movement, or stated explicitly in the opening of Mahler 5. At Beethoven's marked tempo, of course.

Which feeds into my other bizarre theory-- that the prelude/fugues from these sonatas are a representation of Easter weekend. Good Friday in this one, the wailing melismas in the a-minor Sonata for Saturday, and the serene but flowing and rising arrival of joy in the C Major for Easter.

November 29, 2019, 2:32 PM · I admire both artists!
Here, I prefer Ms Hahn's rendering: although highly controlled, I find she shares better the dreamlike aspect of the writing.

Steven, personally I am never sure about an underlying "tactus" across different tempi: I find it robs the movements of their inherent contrasts.

November 29, 2019, 2:43 PM · I think of it as a process of evolution rather than stark contrast. Different moods and expressions all part of the same package.

But it has to work, though. Certainly, the C-Major prelude is easier to imagine than to play at 60bpm. But keep it light so as to think more in terms or barlines than individual beats, and it could be quite effective.

I'd think something closer to 70bpm, perhaps a relaxed 66, would work on the g-minor, though. Same tempo, very different kinds of experiences in prelude and fugue.


November 29, 2019, 3:04 PM · Hahn has said that her Bach is inspired by Milstein's. I do love both of their recordings.
November 29, 2019, 3:57 PM · Forgot to say that-- much to enjoy in both.
Edited: November 30, 2019, 9:47 AM · As a general observation, modern artists, like Hahn and Ehnes, seem to pay very close attention to the harmony and chords in Bach, frequently languishing on chord for a hair longer than some of the great artists of the past, like Milstein. IOW, harmony and melody are treated as equals by Hahn.

The Milstein adagio tends to treat chords as ornaments that lead up to the next tone in the melody. This seems to give the melody more impetus where Hahn and Ehnes are unfolding the melody in the context of the harmony.

One is not better than the other, IMO, just different and each brilliant in their own way.

Ehnes Adagio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dI2uF_b_0Wo

December 1, 2019, 12:48 PM · I think the Hahn version is simply perfect, at least in terms of sound quality. Perhaps "too" perfect, although this is not really what I feel, I only think "wow this is just sublime". Milstein is very "human", like a really very good violinist who is playing the piece personally for you. You can easily imagine Milstein playing the violin while hearing the recording. With the Hahn recording, all I hear is perfection, and scared to imagine that a human can play so well. There is of course a big warning that we are comparing two recordings, with possibly very different treatments regarding editing, effects, technology, splicing, what have you.
December 1, 2019, 2:12 PM · I saw Hilary Hahn in Bergen this summer, and noticed that in many of the pieces her feet moved in small dance steps. I suspect that she has studied the music deeply enough to learn the actual dances, so that now her feet move involuntarily to the rythm.
And that may be why I prefer her version: she dances.
December 2, 2019, 7:53 AM · I will break with the tone of this thread and boldly state that I do not like Hahn's version. I find it so beautiful as to be boring (as our religion teacher once said: "The most boring place you will ever get int is heaven; all the interesting people are in hell"). Playing every note correctly and with beautiful tone is just not enough for me. Especially if one plays so slowly as to make the metrum almost unrecognizable--even in the absence of rubato.

Milstein on the other hand makes the music live. He uses more rubato and especially dynamics to give the music shape.

I would expect someone of Hahn's generation to pay more attention to the period instrument people who would probably play this even faster than Milstein. But she does very much the opposite. I love her Mozart sonatas where her style fits the music but her Bach bores me.

December 2, 2019, 8:20 AM · Speaking of which, I've been enjoying the Midori Goto set (though I suppose she's a generation older than HH.)
December 2, 2019, 1:24 PM · So question for Bruce--
Market research?
Gauging the aptitudes of your fellow posters?
Creating a benchmark for your students?


December 2, 2019, 9:00 PM · "With the Hahn recording, all I hear is perfection, and scared to imagine that a human can play so well."

Yes, it's humbling, and scary in so far as it proves that such a level of technical perfection is possible, and thereby sets it as a modern standard of achievement.

I don't begrudge her that perfection, and found that there's much music to be appreciated with that, instead of the distractions which arise from the older ones, especially when intonation goes off at times. I'd kill to play like that, if not literally, then at least commit some number of other socially reprehensible acts, if that's what it takes.

December 3, 2019, 2:58 PM · I vastly prefer Milstein's S&P's, and find HH's to be unengaging in spite of her technical prowess and command of the instrument. Milstein's is more honest to me, my heart flutters quite a bit more in response to Milstein's.

Jeewon - I have Midori's set and really like it! I've been on a Milstein kick lately, and Enescu's are quite nice too (if you can be a forgiving listener).

Edited: December 4, 2019, 9:10 AM · There are many wonderful performances of the Bach S&P's that I like, some vastly different from each other. In such an "exposed" piece, individual differences are inevitable. But when all is said and done, I have to say that by far the greatest performance I have ever heard of any of them was a live performance in Orchestra Hall in Chicago by Nathan Milstein.

It was his very last performance in Chicago, and he was (I think) 80 or 81. He played the 2nd Partita. It was all beyond anything I have ever heard by anyone (live or in recordings).

And Milstein's Chaconne was truly in a class by itself. I don't think I am exaggerating when I say that there were moments when one felt that one was listening to the actual voice of Bach. And there were several professional violinists in the audience (one of whom I know very well) who had the same reaction.

In my lifetime of listening to violinists (in person and in recordings) this was the most transcendent performance I have ever heard.

I hope that everyone has had, or will have, a musical experience like this, as a listener or a performer.

December 4, 2019, 10:08 AM · In my opinion hahn shines most not in this adagio but in the in fugue where she creates the most intense rhythmic sound without any crunch or ugliness
December 4, 2019, 6:32 PM · I agree with Mark's comment - Hilary's singular talent in these sonatas and partitas to eradicate any sense of unease or technical discomfort boggles the brain. The purity of the double stops, the melodic and unforced double/triple stopping, and the continuous musical line are all marvels.

I will never forget the 18 year old Hilary making her debut with the Cleveland Orchestra (Mendelssohn) with the C major Largo as the encore (I was a very impressionable fifth grader) and thinking there was nothing lovelier that I had heard to date.

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