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New: Hilary Hahn Plays Bach at Davies Hall

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday November 07, 2018 - 09:29:00 PM

The fiendishly difficult Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Johann Sebastian Bach have always been a part of Hilary Hahn’s musical life. Ms. Hahn began her musical studies with her first teacher, Klara Berkovich, and at age 10 was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to study with Jascha Brodsky, who devoted a part of each lesson to solo Bach. At age 17, Hilary Hahn recorded her first CD, entitled Hilary Hahn Plays Bach, which featured her performances of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Partita No. 1 in B minor, and Partita No. 2 in D minor. Now, at age 38, Hilary Hahn revisited exactly these same works in a recital at Davies Hall, Sunday, November 4, under the aegis of San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performer Series. Hilary Hahn performs on an 1864 copy by Vuillaume of the Guarneri “Il Cannone” played by Paganini. 

Sonata No. 1 begins with an Adagio wherein “spread” chords (or, if you will, arpeggiated chords,) create flourishes in the Italian style. The overall mood of this Adagio, as performed by Hilary Hahn, was softly plaintive. There follows a lively, dancing fugue, marked Fuga Allegro, which was vigorously played by Hilary Hahn. Bach himself thought so highly of this fugue that he later transcribed it for organ (BWV 539). The B flat Major Siciliano brings a moment of stately calm after the furious flurry of arpeggios that closes the Fuga Allegro. Partita No. 1 then closes with the bustling moto perpetuo of the Presto, played with spontaneity and vigor by Hilary Hahn. 

Partita No. 1 in B minor consists of four dance movements each with its own set of variations (or “double”). The opening Allemanda features dotted rhythms in the French manner that set a tone of courtly majesty and poise. A Corrente follows with a decidedly Italian dance figure in which Hilary Hahn emphasized the shifting dynamics, playing the first Corrente softly, then playing the Double Presto both louder and faster. This movement was indeed the highlight of Partita No. 1. A stately Sarabande ensued, played with feeling by Ms. Hahn. Partita No. 1 then closed with an animated Tempo di Borea (or Bourée), performed with vigor by Ms. Hahn. 

After intermission, Hilary Hahn returned to the stage to play Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor. This work opens with an elegant Allemande (unusually free of double stopping), then moves on to a Courante of rare dramatic intensity, to a plaintively yearning Sarabande, followed by a bouncy, jaunty Gigue. Then comes the incomparable Chaconne, a movement almost as long as the first four movements combined. This Chaconne is a veritable summation of the solo violin’s expressive capabilities. Here Hilary Hahn rose to the challenge, employing her robust tone and superlative technique to navigate all the intricacies of this highly expressive work. Ms. Hahn varied her dynamics throughout this Chaconne, offering here a light touch, there a strong, insistent attack (as in the oft-repeated three-note figure). When this magnificent Chaconne came to a close, the audience instantly arose to give Hilary Hahn a tumultuous standing ovation. As an encore, Ms. Hahn played the second movement (a gentle fugue) from Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor.