Hilary Hahn & Valentina Lisitsa at Cadogan Hall

Tartini, arr. Kreisler
Variations on a Theme by Corelli
Sonata for Piano and Violin in F, Op.24 (Spring)
Violin Sonata No.4 (Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting)
Partita in B minor, BWV1002
Violin Sonata No.1

Hilary Hahn (violin) & Valentina Lisitsa (piano)

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 18 May, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Hilary Hahn.  Photograph: Kasskara/DGWe have come to expect flawless performances from the younger generation of string-players, but even by those dizzying standards, Hilary Hahn’s bullet-proof technique astounds. No challenge seems to be beyond her; what’s more, she’s able to faultlessly memorise the incessant repetitions of George Antheil’s insane First Violin Sonata, which can be no mean feat. But if something was missing from this tantalisingly programmed Cadogan Hall recital, it was a warmth and variety of tone that might have softened the edges of this muscular display.

Tartini’s Corelli Variations (with Fritz Kreisler’s piano accompaniment) set the tone, acting as a brief fanfare and establishing Hahn’s permanent state of attack. The piece was effectively dispatched but, like the ‘Spring’ Sonata that followed, bereft of charm. Hahn seemed unwilling to relax which kept her performance at a certain distance from the audience. The lyrical opening gesture of the Beethoven emerged rather clenched; how telling it was that when Valentina Lisitsa took up the theme it took on a flowing and airy quality totally precluded from Hahn’s rigid rendition. Lisitsa’s legato in the Adagio seemed to soften Hahn’s grip a little; and the finale too found Hahn less severe than in the opening Allegro. It was this work that most suffered from Hahn’s never-changing vibrato, though there was only a hint of left-hand nuance in Charles Ives’s Fourth Sonata. At the opening of Ives’s central movement, Hahn’s vibrato slowed and softened a little and the change of colour seemed like a breath of fresh air; it didn’t last long, though, as normal service was quickly resumed. The work is a delight, its three compact movements a brief tour of Ives’s soundworld, incorporating the American hymn tradition and the ethereal discords of works such as Three Places in New England. The outer movements take up the hymns, pitting violin and piano in clashing keys and, at the work’s conclusion, breaking the flow of melody with a sudden loss of impetus. But it’s that central Largo that leaves the greatest impression, wafting by with a listless Debussy-like quality. Lisitsa had just the right lightness of touch for this dreamy reflection and, on the whole, Hahn’s unbending seriousness was better suited to Ives’s little sonata.

Valentina Lisitsa. Photograph: Iran Issa-KhanHahn’s muscular musicianship reached a peak in Bach’s B minor Partita; the ‘Corrente’ was a dazzling barrage of perfectly voiced semiquavers, machine-gunned at a rate that seemed scarcely maintainable, but which never faltered, and Hahn’s Bach seemed ultimately steely rather than intimate. There was little to warn of the madness of George Antheil’s First Violin Sonata, however, composed in the 1920s at the height of his avant-garde period. This four-movement piece has no truck with developing its material; rather it presents segments of repetitive violence which recur like tiles shuffled continuously. If that sounds arduous, it is leavened with a Dadaesque sense of joyous ridiculousness in which the seemingly endless crashing episodes of the finale become almost funny as they reappear again and again. Antheil requires the violinist to scratch and scrape at the instrument and produce a series of supercharged glissandos down the length of the top string. Hahn managed every extreme demand of the score.

In an unusual turn of events, Lisitsa returned for her own encore, confirming her remarkable velvet touch in Chopin’s E flat Nocturne, from Opus 9, though why every note in the melody arrived after its equivalent in the accompaniment was a mystery. Hahn and Lisitsa then offered for Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin, a lovely piece, though perhaps not suited to Hahn’s unchanging tone given that it repeats the same idea a number of times.

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