The intimate conversations that are composed for violin and piano hold the promise of great beauty and a directness of expression that can be mesmerizing. Last week I reviewed the recital of violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt (performing at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA.) and how that concert achieved a stunning beauty. Now I turn my attention to a second violin and piano recital performed here in Boston at New England Conservatory’s (“NEC”) Jordan Hall on April 1, 2017 as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston (www.celebrityseries.org). This recital brought together the expressive forces of another world-class dynamic duo: violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Robert Levin, who both have a rich history of performing in Boston. (This concert was Hahn’s fifth Celebrity Series performance and the second Celebrity Series concert for Levin). I eagerly anticipated this concert because both Hahn and Levin have produced a number of individual recordings that I cherish in my own collection for their audiophile quality and their stunning music.
For instance, a favorite recording of mine is Hilary Hahn performing with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by NEC’s current Director of Orchestras, Hugh Wolff, in a program of Samuel Barber’s Concerto For Violin and Orchestra and Edgar Meyer’s Violin Concerto [Sony]. This is a superb recording, created by the always reliable production team of Thomas Frost and Richard King, and it delivers (if your audio system is up to the task!) all the layering, bass heft and power of a full orchestra at the height of its dynamic powers. Hahn’s sweet and radiant violin on Barber’s intensely moving Concerto is also a special gift to savor.
Another gem in Hahn’s recording repertoire is her wonderful chemistry with pianist Natalie Zhu in their recital of Mozart Sonatas for Piano and Violin [Deutsche Grammaphon]. This is another superb recording with an intimacy to all of the swirling action, (recorded at Fischer Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College), that mines beautifully the sparkle and buoyancy of Zhu’s piano touches combined with Hahn’s clarity of line and elegantly relaxed performance.
Pianist and conductor Robert Levin also has a wonderful audiophile gem that is a staple of my collection in which he partners with NEC’s Kim Kashkashian, a violist of eloquence and passion. In 2007, they recorded Asturiana [ECM], a collection of songs from Spain and Argentina that is ravishing in its expressive richness. ECM productions are well known in audiophile circles for their recordings that present new artists and less known repertoires in recordings that capture the intimacy and acoustic spaces of the performances superbly. Asturiana is a beautiful example. Kashkashian’s flowing viola and Levin’s velvet piano touches- bright and zestful (for instance, on Carlos Guastavino’s dancing lines) or brooding with darkened glow (on Alberto Ginastera’s “Triste”) – are all here to explore in their wealth of expression and tactile presence. The recording draws the listener into this intimate drama with these two consummate musicians weaving the narratives of these fresh and expressive songs in a palpable acoustic space.
With these favorite reference recordings in mind, it was with great anticipation that I ventured to Jordan Hall to hear Hahn and Levin combine their talents in an eclectic Celebrity Series program that feasted on music by Bach, Mozart, Schubert and contemporary composers Anton Garcia Abril (in a solo piece written for Hahn) and Hans Peter Turk (in a solo piece written for Levin).
Bach’s Sonata No. 6 for Violin and Piano began the program with a couple of opening moments that found the two musicians slightly rushing out of synch, with a touch of the mechanical to their playing. All this instantly improved when Hahn stood aside (holding her violin with her eyes closed as she listened intently to her partner) as Levin performed one of Bach’s enticing movements for solo piano with a torrent of colors and flowing runs. Levin played with an effortless dancing and liquid touch- each note distinct in his soft flourishes. From this point on, both players seemed to relax more into the music as they sped off in nimble pursuit of Bach’s entwining runs and delectable rushing melodies.
The flowing conversation between Hahn and Levin continued in their exploration of Mozart’s spirited Sonata in E-Flat for Violin and Piano, which brought all of the sunshine, sweet melodies and lilting shade of Mozart’s world to life. The highlight was the slow Adagio in which both players fully inhabited Mozart’s slowly revolving dance. Levin contributing velvet flourishes and pedal effects (soft as smoke rings) that nestled and curled around Hahn’s delicate singing violin lines.
The Adagio also highlighted how Hahn possesses this uncanny ability to effortlessly deliver notes that arrive on time, as the music allows, in all of their tactile and harmonic presence. In the Adagio, Hahn’s violin slowly explored notes in her midrange to her upper register, with each note clear, distinct and full of rotund, timbral splendor. (For another great example, take a listen to the Andante from Barber’s Violin Concerto on the Sony recording noted above and listen to how each of Hahn’s slowly delivered notes contain great regal substance and harmonic richness). That sense of notes arriving in place with great assurance was also on sparkling display in the frolic of Mozart’s playful finale. Hahn’s skittish bowing produced clear, full rounded notes that raced along in playful conversation with Levin’s own light phrasing. Levin took his final piano run with great panache as he let his last phrase hang in silence for several seconds before he leapt back into Mozart’s careening melody once more, (with a smile broadly on his face).
The two contemporary solo pieces highlighted Hahn and Levin’s individual artistry and their penetrating ability to communicate the emotional core of the music performed. Abril’s Partita No. 6 “You” presented Hahn with a maze of technical hurtles including a ferocious cascade of notes (delivered by bowing simultaneously low and high strings with an effortless flick of her wrist); a collision of quick plucks with jarring minor chords and a propulsive attack of notes that covered every range of Hahn’s fleeting, fluid register. This short piece held mystery and velocity in its shape-shifting bursts of colors and Hahn captured its wander and dash perfectly. Abril, who was present at the performance, came up to the stage to give Hahn a warm congratulations.
Another of Abril’s intrepid short works can be heard on Hahn’s In 27 Pieces, her 2013 recording of encores performed with pianist Cory Smythe [Deutsche Grammophone].
In contrast to the Abril, Hans Turk’s Traume For Solo Piano brought forth deep celestial forces, all meditative and pungent, in the hands of Levin. The piece swept along on colossally held bass chords, (penetrating reverberant in Jordan Hall), combined with mercurial spins of light piano runs (as Levin swiveled in his piano chair to the dance). Like a soulful blues organist, Levin searched out the piece’s penetrating phrases (with his velvety touch illuminating every strand of harmony and color) until the final stanza released into major chords that rung with a feeling of potentiality. Levin remained at his piano transfixed while the last note decayed far away into the hall.
That sense of potentiality, (yearning for something elusive and better), infused the final pieces of the concert, including the multiple encores that were performed to the delight of the capacity audience. Schubert’s Rondo in B Minor For Violin and Piano highlighted Schubert’s gift for creating great dynamic tensions that tested the ability of Hahn and Levin to communicate on the same telepathic level. The piece combined flowing searching melodies with the fiery eruptions of Schubert’s regal theme (composed of just a few notes) that blasted forth from a long moment of silence. Hahn and Levin dug deep to hit every dynamic nuance in the piece with perfect stride concluding with Levin striking his final chord with such prodigious power that it rattled the walls of the Jordan Hall with regal combustion. In contrast to this storm, the two partnered on an ethereal encore written by Max Richter entitled “Mercy” (which also appears on Hahn’s In 27 Pieces recording). With Hahn and Levin moving as one quietly expressive force, the plangent depth of this short piece was glowingly illuminated: its beautiful heartbeat of a melody and its yearn for peace on Hahn’s stirring and long- held final note.