Hilary Hahn & Valentina Lisitsa at Barbican Hall [Ives, Ysaÿe, Brahms & Bartók]

Sonata in E minor for Solo Violin, Op.27/4
Violin Sonata No.4
Hungarian Dances – Numbers 10, 11, 12, 19, 5, 20 & 21 [arr. Joachim]
Violin Sonata No.2
Sonata in E for Solo Violin, Op.27/6
Rêve d’enfant
Violin Sonata No.1
Romanian Folk Dances [arr. Székely]

Hilary Hahn (violin) & Valentina Lisitsa (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 April, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Hilary Hahn.  Photograph: Kasskara/DGThis uncommonly responsive duo gave an excellent recital at Cadogan Hall last year and this Barbican Hall offering was – on one level at least – its direct continuation. Having proved a fine exponent of Charles Ives’s Third Violin Sonata back then, Hilary Hahn now turned to the remaining three sonatas of what can rank among the twentieth-century’s most significant if unpredictable contributions to the genre.

Whereas that Third Sonata seems to have emerged as a self-contained entity, the others all arose out of each other – during the period 1908-17 – to the extent that their themes and even movements were freely interchanged. Playing them as a sequence is by no means straightforward, and Hahn was right to opt for one of increasing musical complexity. Thus the Ives element of her programme began with the Fourth Sonata – a ‘sonatina’ intended for his nephew, who found it too difficult. Yet the brief but eventful outer movements, enclosing one of the composer’s ‘revivalist’ meditations, makes a (surprisingly?) well-balanced whole which Hahn and Lisitsa brought off with admirable poise.

The similar length Second Sonata is a much more demonstrative piece – here with a free-ranging and excitable scherzo framed by a relatively austere adagio then an even more sustained and inward finale, all three movements underpinned by hymns and popular tunes, but their presence only becomes explicit at climactic points. Another fine if, in the central movement at least, slightly too reined-in performance with Hahn eschewing the option to reinforce the boisterous piano writing at its close; not that Lisitsa’s pianism was found wanting in terms of overall impact.

Yet it is the First Sonata that left the deepest impression. Longest of the three, it is also the most varied in mood and content – ‘traditional’ themes made to serve a rigorous and essentially classical conception. Each of the three movements, moreover, anticipates and echoes the others, affording that sense of unity such as Ives regularly attains – seemingly in spite of himself – in his major works. Hahn and Lisitsa rendered it thus, along with a sure sense of the music’s fervent and also cumulative intensity – making one regret that the piece still enjoys only a toehold on the repertoire.

Placing these works in a wider context is itself a challenge and, in this respect, the present recital did not quite succeed. Certainly opening each half with one of Ysaÿe’s unaccompanied Sonatas (1924) was well worthwhile, their streamlines though a resourceful brand of virtuosity being a distinct foil to the wayward Ives pieces. And, whether in the harmonic and rhythmic trenchancy of the Fourth Sonata or the alluring suavity of the Sixth, Hahn left little to be desired. Nor was the inclusion of Rêve d’enfant (1894) at all unwelcome, its plaintive quality a small reminder there is more to Ysaÿe than high-flown pyrotechnics.

The selection from Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, though, was rather less successful. Not that Hahn and Lisitsa failed to convey either their pathos or vibrancy, but seven of these relatively uniform pieces in succession confirmed they are better heard as encores rather than as integral to an essentially serious recital. Concluding the advertised programme with Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances – in the scintillating transcription by Zoltán Székely – worked much better, the musicians dovetailing their responses with teasing restraint and also delicious abandon.

This demanding programme reaffirmed Hahn and Lisitsa – who returned for a charming encore unknown to this reviewer – among the most thought-provoking and impressive of current duo-partnerships. Hopefully, too, Hahn’s devotion to Ives will bear fruit in a recording of his sonatas: on the basis of these performances, it would be sure to set new standards in this recalcitrant yet involving music.

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