Hilary Hahn & Natalie Zhu

Sonata for piano and violin in F, K376
Sonata in C for unaccompanied violin, BWV1005
Sonata for piano and violin in E minor, K304
Violin Sonata No.1 in A, Op.13

Hilary Hahn (violin) &
Natalie Zhu (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 2 May, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This sell-out concert was promoted by the American Friends of Wigmore Hall in memory of their first President, John Coblenz, and served as a reminder of the Hall’s current status as the premier venue for chamber music. How many other concert halls outside the US enjoy a full charitable, tax exempt status from the American Revenue (IRS)?

The recital’s two halves both began with very different Mozart Sonatas: the one in F is one of Mozart’s most gracious and urbane creations, while the one in E minor, Mozart’s only minor-key violin sonata, is almost as dark and disturbed as the G minor String Quintet. Not that one would have known it from these performances which, beautifully voiced though they were, plumbed no depths and left one ultimately uninvolved. Part of the problem lay with the pianist, Natalie Zhu, whose well-manicured playing was bland, especially so in K304’s severe Minuet, which was prettified at a slow tempo and limped to its conclusion. These sonatas were described by Mozart as Sonatas for Piano and Violin (in that order) – and to succeed they need a pianist with real personality, one who inhabits the classical style.

Fortunately, however, Hahn’s playing of Bach’s C major Sonata for unaccompanied violin brought musical rewards aplenty. Listening to it, one was reminded that great Bach-playing is timeless and stands outside any passing performance fashions. Hahn’s was magisterial playing. Authentic it certainly was not, but by dint of sheer musicianship it touched on deeper truths. From the leisurely opening Adagio Hahn gave herself plenty of elbowroom so that the music attained its arch-like shape naturally like a flower unfurling. The succeeding, gigantic Fugue was given a performance of resonant power and control, the balance and technical assurance of the part-playing totally outstanding. For once the most complete silence greeted the close of the Largo’s finely spun melodic line before we were away into the concluding Allegro assai – playing of incredible power, control and projection, especially in the stratospheric reaches of the final pages which had to be heard to be believed.

Lastly, Fauré’s wonderful First Sonata, here given the full romantic treatment. At least, despite my earlier criticisms of her playing, in this music Natalie Zhu was, technically, fully on top of the demanding piano part and Hahn produced some glorious tone. However, it all sounded too ripe and full-blooded; Fauré can sustain a less full-frontal approach and more light and shade, and more whimsy in the scherzo. Part of the problem lay in Hahn’s unremittingly rich and saturated sound. Only in the Andante did one feel touched by the music. Elsewhere it was all too high-powered with the result that by the close the ear had palled. In this instance, less would have undoubtedly been more.

There were two encores, Bach’s Siciliano and Stravinsky’s Russian Maiden’s Song given a gem of a performance with a sly wit and with Hahn producing all the subtle variation of tone which had been so conspicuously lacking in the Fauré. Still, despite the musical unevenness, the evening also yielded some quite remarkable violin playing.

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