Hilary Hahn Plays Bach


Decca B0028835-02

This new release completes a project Hilary Hahn began in 1997: she has now recorded Bach’s three Sonatas and three Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006. This disc contains the first and second Sonatas and the first Partita – and represents a lasting achievement for this can do violinist. Hahn has a high-end career, is recipient of three Grammy awards and performs a repertoire that includes concertos of Brahms, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky and Jennifer Higdon (the premiere) – in addition to Bach’s BWV 1001-1006.

Hahn writes in the CD booklet notes that she has been playing and working on selections of these Sonatas and Partitas since age nine. Her interpretation reflects an intimacy with Bach’s inspirational writing but also projects her idea about how this composer’s music should sound. Of course there are opinions that tout historically informed performance or authentic performance over an anything goes concept.

Pianists don’t have to deal with vibrato or bowings, but phrasing, articulation, pedaling and tempo in Baroque music remain a source of controversy, especially when played on a lovely modern grand. Hahn’s approach to Bach has elements that are rather timeless, not exactly Baroque or Romantic in nature, but stylistically tasteful and completely appropriate. Her playing brings out the essence of Bach’s melodic writing, which was perhaps instilled from her studies with Felix Galimir and Jascha Brodsky, a student of Eugene Ysaye.

I recommend starting the listening experience with Sonata No. 2 to get a sense of Hahn’s fearless dexterity and Bach’s intricate contrapuntal writing in the Fuga – a tour de force that is delivered with total conviction and depth. Her fifty shades of dynamics in the Andante, with its mini basso ostinato create an intensely dramatic soundscape and the closing Allegro is infused with a buoyant palette of inflections. 

Hahn’s account of Sonata No. 1 is both kinetic and seamless for its purity and vitality. The opening Adagio and Siciliana unfold with expressive flexibility and her bowing in the Presto always seems to begin and end on the upbeat or up swing rather than a stodgy downbeat – which gives the perpetual motion passagework a feeling of connectivity from sequence to sequence.

Partita No. 1 is memorable for its glistening intonation and elliptical bowing that allow phrases to gently curve and bend with each harmonic shift. The Allemande and Sarabande take on an inward quality where Hahn draws out layers of sonority and just enough lingering vibrato to produce a dreamy atmosphere. And the well-known Tempo di Bourree movement sways with beautifully timed rhythmic delicacy.

Hahn dives into these works with intelligence and introspection and one gets the feeling that this thirty-eight-year-old is not playing for an audience but only for Bach himself, the musical master of them all.