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A Beautiful Mind

October 23, 2007

We in the Bay Area have had a remarkable number of opportunities to hear the young violinist Hilary Hahn, whose more-or-less-yearly performances here stretch all the way back to her Brahms Concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony in 1999. This year her return, courtesy of Cal Performances, was in recital with pianist Valentina Lisitsa, in a dauntingly difficult program given last Tuesday at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. It was a program seemingly calculated to demonstrate Hahn's range, and so it did, though not perhaps entirely as it was intended to.
Hilary Hahn remains in more than one sense an exceptional violinist. Brilliant chops and keen musical intelligence are rare enough, but Hahn's fierce seriousness is really well outside the top-young-international-star norm. So is the nature of her technical equipment. I begin to suspect that it's the latter that drives the former, that the root of her extraordinary musical single-mindedness is a technical approach that I can only call terrifyingly efficient.

Efficiency, alas, has connotations of dullness and caution that are singularly inappropriate to Hahn. The marvel of mechanics that is her playing is, in its way, boundlessly interesting. It's not only watching how she manages and allocates all that power that's fascinating, either, but also guessing what she plans to do with it.

It's difficult to make clear how much of an outlier Hahn's technique is. Her bow-management, for example, is utterly unlike anyone else's, in my experience. Basically, her bow lives at one spot on the string (a few millimeters from the bridge), and moves essentially at a single speed. If one note is four times longer than another, it gets four times the bow; duration and amount of bow used are in fairly strict proportion.

What this means, in practice, is that Hahn uses much, much less bow than most violinists. (What a pity it's not possible to bank saved bow at compound interest; if it were, the lady would doubtless have hundreds of miles' worth to her name by now.) Where other violinists routinely vary bowspeed, and distance from the bridge, for dynamic and coloristic purposes, Hahn limits herself to varying pressure only. That she can achieve the degree of variety she does with such artificially constrained means is almost miraculous. So, for that matter, is the sheer depth and consistency of tone she gets this way, at every dynamic level. But, for all that, what she has set herself is a real limitation, and the flip side of that uncanny tonal integrity is an uncomfortable sameness of voice.

It's the same with her (equally amazing) left-hand technique. Such single-minded accuracy and both ease and purposefulness of motion is there that hardly any irregularity of color survives. Hahn is the only violinist I've ever encountered whose fourth finger seems to be the strict equal of the others, in the sense that she can use it with literal indifference. In the same way, she seems equally comfortable — and gets much the same tone color — anywhere on the fingerboard.
Marvelous Work on an Empty Canvas
All this is both marvelous and disquieting: wonderful, yes, that she is able to do that, but disturbing, in that where lesser technicians have always had to work around the bumpiness of the instrument and the technique — to turn awkwardness and unevenness somehow to poetical advantage — with Hahn the blank canvas starts genuinely blank. For her, the crooked is straight and the rough places are plain. This quite appropriately inspires awe, but in music awe cannot be everything.

Leading off with the Franck A-Major Sonata, a natural recital-closer if ever there was one, was characteristically audacious. It was clear from the outset that this was going to be a fiercely concentrated and controlled performance. There was no remote dreaminess about the first movement, but rather that keen, dense, slightly gritty Hahn sound, carved into great, patient phrases.

Most unusually, she played the entire movement (and much of the next, to boot) without using the E string at all. I can imagine another player venturing high up the A string in search of a more exotic, more covered sound. But with Hahn's slow, intense bow the effect was, if anything, grainier and more immediate than it was when, midway through the second movement, she first availed herself of the top string.

Hahn's partner on this tour, pianist Valentina Lisitsa, has a certain virtuoso reputation in her own right, and in the Franck's blustery piano part she amply justified it. All the same, I had the persistent impression that she was reining herself in, trying too hard not to bang or to overbalance the violin. (Overbalance Hilary Hahn? You can try.)

The Brahms A-Major Sonata, Op. 100, mirrored the Franck at the other end of the program, and offered as fine a vehicle for Hahn's lyrical manner as anyone could want. Too fine, maybe: Brahms does not oblige the violinist to do anything but sing, and Hahn accordingly gave us nearly half an hour of unbroken, full-throated, minutely intense song. It was magnificent, but exhausting.

And in between? Three more substantial sonatas, each bristling with technical demands that were met and exceeded with insolent assurance. Best of the lot, I thought, was the second-half-opening Third Sonata of Charles Ives. Both players were evidently fairly new to the piece, Lisitsa in particular sounding more than a little uncomfortable in places. But for Hahn the music offered irresistible opportunities — for example, in the hymnody-laden outer movements for deep, burnished tone, and in the skittish second movement for her particular brand of bow-slashing scherzando.
Stunningly Played, but Guarded
The same qualities were much more disputable assets in Mozart's B-flat Sonata (K. 378). Certainly Hahn's ease and confidence in the tricky outer movements of this deceptively rich work were arresting, and Lisitsa's fluent and stylish piano playing was a positive delight. But Hahn's contribution seemed to me — as her Mozart has repeatedly seemed to me before — studied, joyless, and overdriven. It was stunningly well-played, eminently thoughtful, and unfailingly tasteful, and it didn't relax its guard for a microsecond. I'm not sure that the 27-year-old Hahn still has it in her to be as cheerfully careless as the 24-year-old Mozart. I'm not sure that she ever did.

As for Eugène Ysaÿe's fifth unaccompanied sonata, which followed the Mozart to end the first half, Hahn's performance encapsulated everything admirable as well as everything maddening about her playing. Like all the Ysaÿe solo sonatas, the Fifth requires phenomenally pure intonation and a ferocious chord technique. Hahn has those, all right; the many slithery runs in parallel fourths in both movements were achingly in tune. She has, too, the trajectory-shaping skill to mold the first movement, "L'Aurore," into an implacable, ultimately blinding sunrise.

But what in heaven's name happened to the second movement's "Danse Rustique"? Hahn's was a "danse" slow, smooth, impeccably finished, and about as "rustique" as a courtly pavane. We got the full benefit of the magnificent chording technique already familiar from her solo Bach, including her astonishing fluency in breaking chords up-bow — a capacity she managed to demonstrate here by dint of editing most of Ysaÿe's marked repeated down-bows out of the score. The whole thing smelled of the practice room, even when, at the ever-accelerating end of the movement, she got up to full speed.

The Brahms ended at 10:30, but Hahn, taking her bows, appeared unwearied. She wouldn't, she perkily told the clamoring audience, "make [you] sit through another half-hour lyrical work," but for her encore she rattled off the Heifetz transcription of Prokofiev's March from The Love for Three Oranges. Now that was vintage Hahn: bright, fearless, sassy, and supremely confident. Here, in her element, she was flatly unsurpassable, as she always has been wherever her enormous gifts and the music's demands precisely coincide. Will that happen more often, in time? I don't know, but watching anyone wielding such prodigious power, even imperfectly, remains a privilege I'm grateful to have had.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.