Hilary Hahn & Valentina Lisitsa

Sonata for Violin and Piano
Sonata for Piano and Violin in A, K305
Sonata in G minor (The Devil’s Trill)
Sonata for Solo Violin in A minor, Op.27/2 (à Jacques Thibaud)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in A, Op.47 (Kreutzer)

Hilary Hahn (violin) & Valentina Lisitsa (piano)

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 12 May, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Hilary Hahn. Photograph: Kasskara/DGIn May 1926 Janáček attended a performance of his Violin Sonata, in a programme devoted to his music at the Wigmore Hall. In May 2007, the opening movement, marked Con moto was too Romantic for this music – it, surely, should have a more uneasy and restless quality. Throughout the piece, Hilary Hahn, with lots of intense bowing, took the lead, in what is more a piece of equals between the violin and piano. At the close of the first movement time seemed to stand still, such was the concentrated calm. The inner movements allowed Valentina Lisitsa to exploit her skills in providing a non-intrusive rippling accompaniment along side Hahn’s flourishes. The slow finale had shudders from Hahn and forceful high tremolandos, supposedly representing Russian troops entering Hungary, before dying away into gloom – just how it should be.

Mozart’s sonata received a typically unpretentious performance, exuding youthful cheerfulness. Set against the potent Janáček and the earlier “Devil’s Trill” sonata of Tartini, this was more like a confection. For many in the audience, it seemed, the Tartini was the highlight of the evening, given that it was possible to hear Hahn at her most expressive, particularly in the passionate close to the piece. Tartini recalled that he dreamt that the devil was sat at the foot of his bed playing the trill from the finale of the sonata, hence the soubriquet attached to the piece. The Allegro could have had more life, but the contrasting Allegro and Andante episodes in the finale were spot on. What was striking was the way in which the sudden changes in tempo did not feel like hand-break turns, but, rather, very natural adjustments. The close was grandiose – superb at every level, because of Hahn’s dedication.

Valentina Lisitsa. Photograph: Iran Issa-KhanYsaÿe’s solo Sonata was written, along with five others, in 1923: an ambitious project that Ysaÿe set himself after witnessing a Bach recital given by Joseph Szigeti. The first sonata he dedicated to Szigeti and the rest he dedicated to other outstanding players of the younger generation, with this one to Jacques Thibaud, whom he knew well. The influences of Bach are obvious from the outset and the way these are cast aside was given a sensibly harsh treatment. The melancholic key of E minor dominates the second movement, especially in the quotations of the ‘Dies irae’ motif. The theme returns in a series of pizzicato chords and, later, it was given forceful treatment with the bow. The contrapuntal passages showed off Hahn’s virtuosic skills and the finale was not just furious, as required, but was angry, too. The restlessness when the ‘Dies irae’ returns was captivating and the defiant close was appropriately commanding.

What was good about the ‘Kreutzer’ was the apparent battle of wits between players: this is music in which violin and piano should have equal status, and it makes the outer movements all the more thrilling. Their pace did not quite reach the Presto required in the opening movement but there were thrills nevertheless. The opening was given an expansive feel and the rapid sections had a proper amount of excitement, generated by the players rather than an accurate reading of the notes. Although the finale was assertive and had élan, it was not a whirlwind. Still, it had the life and energy that would go on to impress Schubert and this, in the final analysis, made it a joy to listen to.

A perfectly-chosen encore of Paganini’s Cantabile followed. There were no throw-away gestures here, but committed delicacy, able to highlight Hahn’s skill at the low end of the violin’s register. Such repose at the end made for a fitting close to the evening.

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