. . . whatever Hahn's readings may lack in individuality, they abound in such communicativeness and elegance that they will endure for decades to come . . . Hahn seems to understand better than many other soloists today how to "bounce" a rhythm without overstressing the beat, and how to establish fleet tempos without sounding rushed.
Record Review /
Fanfare (Tenafly, NJ) / 01. May 2004
Hahn seems to understand better than many other soloists today how to "bounce" a rhythm without overstressing the beat, and how to establish fleet tempos without sounding rushed . . . the recorded sound is enveloping in an entirely natural way . . . whatever kind of player you have, these performances belong in it.
Record Review /
Fanfare (Tenafly, NJ) / 01. May 2004
Le parti pris (risqué) de placer les micros très près des musiciens est brillamment défendu. Pas de grossissements inestétiques, pas de duretés ni de sons projetés. On est très près de l'orchestre, dont l'image est large, ample et bien équilibrée. La soliste est très présente mais reste bien intégrée. Remarquable lisibilité de toutes les parties. Sonorités pleines et onctueuses.
Record Review /
Diapason (Paris) / 01. May 2004
Foreword Hilary Hahn
While I was warming up in a dressing room recently, a piece of artwork on the wall caught my eye. In the center was the following excerpt from T. S. Eliot: “... The past experience revived in the meaning / Is not the experience of one life only / But of many generations ..."
Had Eliot been describing the music of J. S. Bach, he would have hit the nail right on the head. As with many other works of classical music, countless interpretations of these four concerti have been passed from generation to generation, from teacher to student, from legendary musician to admirer, and from colleague to colleague. In Bach's case, this continuation of tradition has lasted well over two centuries. The world has changed greatly since he composed these works, but through it all, his music has remained unsullied, a touchstone of emotional purity.
Sometimes I'm asked, “What sets Bach apart from other great composers?" It's a difficult question to answer. There are so many details that one could point to, yet, like the famous Mona Lisa's smile, the most distinctive elements are the most elusive. Some people emphasize that Bach's music captures the essence of humanity, that it brings together complex elements of light and shadow, solitude and communion, elation and the depths of sorrow. The listener is led through conflict to beautiful resolution, but satisfying as the resolution may be, another layer of expression is constantly waiting to be uncovered. I feel that this is true of all of Bach's compositions.
I must say, however, that what impressed me most while preparing for and making this recording was the unique sense of community inherent in Bach's music. In the year or so leading up to the sessions, I worked on these four concerti intensively with numerous orchestras, conductors, and fellow soloists. As always, each musician and each audience member brought his or her own thoughts to the process - but instead of clashing, those different ideas and opinions inevitably contributed to an organic whole. Experiences combine well in Bach; meaning is garnered from collective history, while memories are dusted out of the smallest corners and put to affectionate use.
My memories of these pieces are happy ones. My first performance of the E major concerto, outside of Philadelphia, was the only time my aged but beloved and spirited teacher, Jascha Brodsky, saw me play with orchestra. Several generations of his family joined him; it was the sole occasion on which I heard him called “Papi". A few years later, I performed the second-violin part in the Concerto for Two Violins, with Jaime Laredo, who was my coach at the time. Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to the Concerto for Oboe and Violin by a Russian oboist whose violinist grandfather had been the long-time, previous owner of my violin. The oboist's family and what seemed like Baltimore's entire Russian community attended that concert, to hear him perform next to his grandfather's violin. I also remember receiving the music for the A minor concerto; the notes were so familiar, and I enjoyed the opportunity to play them at long last, after years of singing and dancing to recordings of the piece and, in concert halls, annoying my neighbors by quietly tapping my toes to the quick movements. In essence, the meaning that these four pieces hold for me is greater than the notes alone; it is deeply entwined with my experiences, which would not have been possible without the influence of many past generations.
It is my hope that while listening to this album, you - in turn - will be inspired to hum to the slow movements, tap your feet to the fast, and dance to it all (at home, of course). Join in! I am sure Bach would be pleased.
Hilary Hahn in conversation with James Keller
JK: You are now 23 years old and you have recorded the violin concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach, which many music lovers consider a summit of your instrument's repertoire. Do you worry that you are committing your interpretations to disc too soon in your career? HH: No, not really. In fact, I was only 16 or 17 when I recorded a disc of Bach's solo sonatas and partitas, and those are also at the summit of the repertoire. I never worried about it, perhaps because Bach was the composer I'd played the most at that time. I'm very comfortable with Bach.
I remember that solo recording well, and although I was deeply impressed by your performance, I had to believe that it was just a beginning for you - that precisely because it was so good it was bound to open the door to further insights the longer you lived with the music. I hope so! I don't believe in the idea that a recording is definitive. To me, a recording is a living document of a performer's interpretation at a certain point in time. The longer you've played a piece, the more interpretive options you uncover, though what you discover later isn't necessarily better or worse than what you've done before.
It's interesting: for a live performance, I'll seek out as many new ideas as I can find, to keep expanding my musical horizons and keep things interesting for everyone. By the time I get to a recording session, on the other hand, I've played the piece so often that my focus turns to organizing those ideas and solidifying my interpretation, so that the end result is as intriguing and organic as possible.
Who have been some of the violinists who have influenced your outlook on Bach? I played the E major Concerto very early on, when I was 12 or 13. At that time I was studying with Mr. [Jascha] Brodsky at Curtis. He was my teacher from 1990 until 1997, when he died. Those were formative years for me, and he was hugely influential on everything in my playing. He was open to various ways of playing each piece he taught me, but if he didn't like what he heard, he'd say so. Basically, his approach was personalized; he was interested in helping find out what worked best for each individual performer.
I had already played my first solo Bach before I started studying with him. That was the Siciliano and Presto from the G minor solo Sonata, which I included in my very first recital, at the age of 10. From the beginning, I learned how much detail is called for in Bach and how much time and care it takes to prepare those works for concert.
Do you also seek advice from past masters by listening to their recordings? I like old recordings. In the old times, the technology wasn't as developed, so the essence of those recordings is naturally quite different. People comment on how violinists' styles have changed over the generations; but I find it hard to compare, given the fact that I never had the chance to hear the older players live.
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate as many old recordings of Bach's violin concertos as I'd like. Lately, I've listened to some recent "historically informed" Bach recordings, because there are so many to choose among and I find the approach interesting. What I like about some "period" recordings is the spirit they convey - the upbeat tempos, the strong sense of motion throughout, and the dance-like quality. I tried to capture some of those elements on my recording, while taking advantage of the sustaining strengths of modern instruments. Do you follow your Baroque colleagues in improvising a bit?
Occasionally, here and there, but I didn't receive such extensive training in it that I can improvise whole movements off a figured bass. The music as written conveys many things on its own, so I pay close attention to the score and try to let the notes speak for themselves. What instrument do you play on this recording?
It was built in Paris by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, in 1864.
How does the experience of playing Bach concertos differ from that of playing unaccompanied Bach? Really, all of Bach's music is chamber music, whether it's written for a solo instrument or a large ensemble. In solo works the performer creates chamber music on one instrument, by balancing and phrasing many different lines at once; therefore, in the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas, much of the inspiration comes from within. Conversely, when more musicians are involved, the chamber-music structure is more standardized, and interpretations are formed through interaction with the other instrumentalists. I am strongly influenced by the people I work with. I bring my own thoughts to the table, but when I'm working with other musicians there's a lot of adapting that takes place.
Whereas a large ensemble requires a fair amount of organization, Bach's solo works can be played in all situations. They only require one instrument, and the music is complete in and of itself. I play them in every recital I give and as encores after concerti, as well as in many other contexts. I present them at schools, for instance, to kids who have never even heard a violin before. The music always grabs people's attention, and it's a powerful experience. My cousin is a first-grade teacher in Los Angeles, so while I was there working with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on this recording, I visited his classroom and played for the kids. I like seeing young people's reactions to the music. Often what they perceive is different from what I perceive, but their perception is honest and uninfluenced. On this occasion, I asked how a certain slow movement made them feel: one kid said happy, another said sad, but both observations are valid.
Was this recording with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra done in conjunction with live concerts? Yes. I always like to do that, because if we were to go into a recording session cold, the orchestra and I wouldn't be in sync. I prefer to play concerts first, then rest for a day or two, and then do the recording.
Can the experience of the live performance be translated directly to the recording? The effect may be similar from the one environment to the other, but the means of achieving it can be very different. Some things have to change in order to make a concert interpretation convincing in a recording. Certain articulations which work well in a hall might seem intrusive from three feet away, while subtleties of phrasing which would never come across in a large hall pop out under a microphone.
You sound like a "people person" when it comes to music making. I guess I am. I like to meet audiences after my concerts. I mingle in the lobby, sign programs and CDs, and whatever else people bring along for me to sign. I love the social aspect of it. When I was little, I had friends who would take me backstage at the Baltimore Symphony, introducing me to many of the visiting soloists and conductors. It was a blast. As it turned out, talking with those people gave me a good feel for the life of a travelling musician - I knew what to expect later when I myself began touring. I try to return the favor now, being available to talk to audience members whenever possible. I enjoy the experience because I get to meet the people I play for, who are a pivotal part of any performance.
What do you do when you're not making music? I read, I write, I play with animals, I take pictures, and I have a website with a travelogue journal. I took ballet lessons for a long time, so I like to dance. I also enjoy painting and drawing - any arts and crafts. And I love exploring the cities I visit while on tour. If you could ask Bach a question or two about his violin concertos, what would you ask?
Wow. I hadn't thought about that. I might ask if he intended for his music to be played in a very specific way or if he imagined the many different interpretations that have arisen over the centuries. Also, I'd be curious to sit him down in front of a CD player and show him some music by composers he influenced. For example, I'm playing the Stravinsky Violin Concerto on tour with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony this spring, and in October I'm recording the Elgar Violin Concerto with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra. Stravinsky always said he was influenced by Bach, as did Elgar. Edgar Meyer, who wrote me a violin concerto a few years ago, is also a Bach devotee. But what would Bach himself make of the violin concertos of Elgar, Stravinsky, and Meyer? I'd love to witness his reaction.
Our poor world has been going through some troubled times lately. Does a classical musician have a political role to play? I think each musician enters the music world for a different, personal reason. I'm attracted by its virtue of bringing people together; it creates a circle of unspoken communication in the concert hall, and recordings extend that bond to listeners wherever they happen to be. I consider the concert hall to be a sort of refuge. People may listen, think what they want, talk about it later or not, even fall asleep and rest: it's all fine.
A lot of pop musicians and actors have been vocal about political issues. In a way, that's expected. During dramatic times such as these, when so many strong opinions are flying about, it would be odd to avert discussion if you're in a field based on words. In classical music, there is really no such expectation. The art is separate from speech. What you communicate arises from the quality of the music, much of which has already withstood the test of time.
(James M. Keller is program annotator of the New York Philharmonic
and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras)
Hilary Hahn Timeline
Born on 27 November in Lexington, Virginia, USA.
Moves to Baltimore at the age of three; first violin lessons in a local children's program one month before her fourth birthday.
At five, begins five years of study in Baltimore with Klara Berkovich, a native of Odessa who had taught at the Leningrad School for the Musically Gifted for 25 years before emigrating to Baltimore.
In February, gives her first full recital, at Leakin Hall in Baltimore. Enters the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at the age of ten to study with 83-year-old Jascha Brodsky, the last surviving student of Eugène Ysaye. Makes her first radio appearance, on classical WFLN-FM in Philadelphia.
First engagement with a professional orchestra at the age of eleven; receives her first full-size violin; major orchestra debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in December. Grants her first television interviews.
Appears on A&E's "The Gifted Ones." Begins full-time undergraduate studies at Curtis in music, liberal arts, and foreign languages.
Debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music. European orchestral debut in Hungary with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. European chamber-music debut in France at the Festival of Sully-sur-Loire, with future recital partner Natalie Zhu. Crosses paths with a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin from 1864 and falls in love with it, buys it shortly thereafter.
Debuts with other leading American orchestras, including the Cleveland, New York Philharmonic, and Pittsburgh Symphony.
German debut in Munich at the age of 15, playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto in a televised concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Lorin Maazel. Tours throughout Europe during the next three years in an exclusive arrangement with Maazel and the BRSO. Spends her first summer (of four) studying and performing chamber music at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, USA.
Her first recording featuring solo Sonatas and Partitas by J. S. Bach is released, winning a Diapason d'Or. Carnegie Hall debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Debut in the Berlin Philharmonie with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Performs in Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Completes bachelor's degree requirements at the Curtis Institute.
Teacher Jascha Brodsky dies at the age of 89, while Hilary is on tour in California. In October she makes her Paris debut with a recital in the Salle Olivier Messiaen.
Makes her orchestral debut in Paris in January at the Salle Pleyel, playing the First Prokofiev Concerto with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Marek Janowski. Her recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Bernstein's Serenade with the Baltimore Symphony under David Zinman is nominated for a Grammy Award, crowned with a Diapason d'Or and, a few months later, an Echo Klassik Award. Makes tour appearances with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Vienna's Musikverein, London's Barbican Hall, and Zürich's Tonhalle; recital debuts in London's Wigmore Hall, Milan's Conservatorio Verdi, and Hamburg's Musikhalle. Appears on the "Harald Schmidt Show" on German television.
Graduates from the Curtis Institute of Music with a bachelor's degree. Orchestral debuts with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and San Francisco Symphony; concert at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Makes a five-week tour of Australia. Performs and records the violin concerto written for and dedicated to her by Edgar Meyer.
Her 1999 recording of concertos by Barber and Meyer wins the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis and the Cannes Classical Award. Makes BBC Proms debut as featured soloist at the "Last Night" in London's Royal Albert Hall. Tours Japan with the Berliner Philharmoniker. European tours with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester of Berlin. Makes her subscription concert debut with the London Philharmonic.
Tours North America as soloist with the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. An autumn tour brings recitals in Pittsburgh, Seattle, New York, Hamburg, Brussels, Berlin, Madrid, Paris, Lisbon, Tokyo, and Osaka. Returns to Munich and Vienna as soloist with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Makes her debut appearances with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France, and Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome.
Signs an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon and makes her first recording under this agreement, four concertos by J. S. Bach with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Kahane. Recital debuts at Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Musikverein as part of a tour stretching from California to Istanbul. Return engagements with the Zürich Chamber and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestras. Her recording of concertos by Brahms and Stravinsky with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields wins the "Monde de la musique"'s Choc Award; a Grammy follows in 2003.
North American appearances include the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston, National, Seattle, St. Louis, Honolulu, and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestras. Four-week European tour with the San Francisco Symphony. In addition, she makes orchestral débuts in Lisbon and Barcelona and returns to the Frankfurt Radio and Danish National Symphony Orchestras. Her album of Bach concertos will be released in the autumn. Her next CD for Deutsche Grammophon will be recorded in London: Elgar's Violin Concerto and Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending", with Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
Johann Sebastian Bach was renowned as a keyboard virtuoso, but he was also a skilled violinist. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, had been a professional violinist in Erfurt and Eisenach (where Johann Sebastian was born), so our composer surely grew up with the sound of that instrument in his ear. It was as a violinist that Sebastian obtained his first professional appointment, at Weimar in 1703, and when he died 47 years later in Leipzig, he left in his estate a violin built by Stainer - probably the luthier Jacob Stainer whose instruments remain prized today. In 1774, Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel recalled of his father: “From his youth up to fairly old age he played the violin purely and with a penetrating tone and thus kept the orchestra in top form, much better than he could have from the harpsichord. He completely understood the possibilities of all stringed instruments."
Bach supplied the violin repertoire with surpassing masterpieces, including eight sonatas with harpsichord accompaniment, six works for unaccompanied violin, obbligato parts in his cantatas and passions, and a handful of concertos. The violin plays an important solo role in three of the Brandenburg Concertos as well as in the Triple Concerto in A minor for flute, violin, and harpsichord BWV 1044. But his essential works for solo violin and orchestra are the four concertos presented on this recording.
Composing orchestral music was not really a principal focus of Bach's work. From 1717 to 1723 he was in charge of secular music for the court at Cöthen, but the 13-member instrumental ensemble available to him there fell short of what we would consider a modern orchestra. Thus his ostensibly orchestral pieces of the period, such as the Brandenburg Concertos and perhaps three of these violin concertos (BWV 1041-43), still stand with one foot firmly in the realm of chamber music. The ensemble supporting the soloist(s) consists here only of strings, with a harpsichord to realize the continuo line. In this connection Hilary Hahn has remarked: “All of Bach's music is chamber music, whether it's written for a solo instrument or a large ensemble. In solo works the performer creates chamber music on one instrument, by balancing and phrasing many different lines at once. On the other hand, when more musicians are involved, the chamber-music structure is more standardized, and interpretations are formed through interaction with the other instrumentalists."
In 1723 Bach moved to Leipzig, where his time was largely given over to composing and directing sacred music. But between 1729 and 1741 he also found time to direct the city's Collegium musicum, a semi-professional assemblage of students and music lovers who met regularly at Zimmermann's coffee house - or, in the summer, in its outdoor garden - for instrumental music making. Now Bach had an ongoing need for concerto repertoire, and accordingly he dipped into his own back-catalogue to resurrect works he had written in Cöthen years earlier. In some cases he refashioned them into versions that spotlighted the Collegium's specific forces.
Scholars have traditionally maintained that BWV 1041-
43 were composed in Cöthen and revived for the Leipzig Collegium musicum. The assumption is based on slender evidence at best, and recent thought favors
the possibility that they actually originated in Leipzig around 1730. There is no doubt that Bach's keyboard arrangements of these three pieces date from his Collegium musicum years, when he turned the A minor violin concerto into a G minor harpsichord concerto, the E major violin concerto in a D major harpsichord concerto, and the D minor double violin concerto into a C minor concerto for two harpsichords.
The Concerto for oboe and violin BWV 1060 has less certain origins. All of Bach's solo or duo concertos with orchestra exist in versions featuring harpsichord - in this case, as a C minor concerto for two harpsichords - but none is thought to have been created for that instrument initially. In the 1920s the musicologist Max Seiffert analyzed the tessitura and other musical characteristics of BWV 1060 and deduced that the piece had originally been a concerto for oboe and violin; he published an edition for those instruments, transposing the piece to D minor to fit the oboe's comfort zone better. (A 1764 catalogue from the publishing firm of Breitkopf lists a Bach concerto for oboe and violin; though it fails to mention the work's key, at least it confirms that Bach penned some piece for this instrumental combination.) Scholars' opinions vary, however, and this concerto also exists in a reconstruction for oboe and violin pitched in C minor - performed here - as well as versions for two violins in either key.
Variety is the hallmark of these four concertos. The Violin Concerto in A minor, densely concentrated and contrapuntally involved, is by turns dramatic and lyrical in its outer movements. But its central Andante is relaxed and pensive - though it, too, generates a good deal of tension by piling up dissonances over extended pedal points. In contrast, the E major is one of the most jubilant of Bach's concertos, positively ebullient in its first movement and its concluding rondo. Here the hushed middle movement is a freely treated chaconne in B minor. The Concerto for Oboe and Violin is a lively and intensely emotional work in its outer movements, especially the finale, which contains an exciting episode with great sweeps of triplets proclaimed by the violinist. These frame a luminous, introspective Adagio in which the two soloists spin out elegant contrapuntal lines above simple chords in the orchestra. The two violinists are equal partners in the D minor Double Concerto, often sharing their musical material in close alternation. The work's slow movement is a particularly fine example of Bach's ability to make time seem to stop while the players weave a magical tapestry from threads of poignancy, resignation and tenderness. Anything would seem an intrusion after such a movement, but Bach pulls no punches in the unusually energetic, even blustery, finale.
James Keller James Keller is program annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic