On Tuesday night, Hilary Hahn, the violinist, played a recital of solo Bach—that is, unaccompanied Bach. She played it in David Geffen Hall, at Lincoln Center. David Geffen? The orchestra hall? Yes. A solo-violin recital? Yes. And it worked. The hall did not seem too large at all (at least where I sat).
David Geffen recently underwent a big renovation, resulting in better acoustics. Would this recital have worked prior to the renovation? Many would say no, reflexively. I’m not so sure. A certain kind of artist can make Madison Square Garden intimate. But I have no doubt that the Geffen renovation helped.
I should note, too, that Ms. Hahn had no “shell” behind her—those partition-like things that big halls sometimes erect behind a recitalist.
Hahn played as if no one else were present at all. She was in her own private Idaho—fixed on Bach, fixed on her art (and his).
The house lights were on, the whole time. Why, I don’t know. Initially, I thought it was strange. Then I sort of forgot about it. Know, too, that people were seated behind the stage. This is nice, when people want to see a conductor conduct an orchestra—see him face on. For a violin recital, the position has no advantages. Rather, it has disadvantages, I would think.
Long ago, Isaac Stern played a recital in a theater-in-the-round. He was pretty stout by this time. Before playing, he turned and said, “Pardon my back.” Then he said, to the people he would face, “Pardon my front.”
This must be one of the most charming things ever said from a concert stage.
On Hilary Hahn’s program, there were three Bach works, all in minor keys: the Sonata No. 1 in G minor, the Partita No. 1 in B minor, and the Partita No. 2 in D minor. (This last work is the one that concludes with the mighty Chaconne—mighty and angelic at the same time.) I will not give you blow by blow, movement by movement. Maybe I could offer some general remarks.
Hahn walked onto the stage and, as soon as the applause subsided, began whatever piece she was playing. No fuss, no muss. She was utterly confident and utterly natural. Tempos were right—the tempi giusti. Technique was near immaculate. In fact, one could put it out of mind.
To fasten on a detail: Hahn knows just when and how to exit a note. This may seem a small thing, but it makes a difference, especially over a whole Bach recital.
In tone, or tones, Hahn was beautiful. She was both “singerly” and “dancerly.” The Bach partitas are full of dances, as you know. Hahn’s rhythm was acute, often delightful. In the Chaconne, she dug into the keys—but dug elegantly, if you can imagine.
As she played her Bach, Hahn was neither “personal” nor “objective.” She was neither too hot nor too cool. She was, again, natural. I sometimes say of a performance, “It was inarguable.” (I would frequently say it of James Levine’s Mozart, for example.) In these Bach works, Hahn was inarguable. I did not hear interpretation, frankly. I heard, rather: this is the way it goes.
In sum, Hilary Hahn played with authority—beauty, intelligence, and authority. You were in good hands. Bach was in good hands.
The audience went nuts for this woman. They applauded after particular movements, which seemed to invite applause. Hahn did not glare at them or scold them. She nodded and mouthed “Thank you.” After the Chaconne—after the last work on the program—they went absolutely crazy. I’m not sure Taylor Swift hears more pandemonium.
In 2018, Hahn played a solo-Bach recital next door at Alice Tully Hall—in fact, she played the identical program. For an encore, she repeated the Chaconne. And on this occasion, in David Geffen? She played the Preludio from the E-major partita.
Here is a detail—neither here nor there, but possibly interesting: the last note of the Preludio was very short. It was almost jarringly short—but by no means wrong. Hahn plays this piece differently every time she plays it, I bet. Every performance has its nuances. Every performance is “in the moment.” But the fundamentals—the glorious fundamentals—remain.
Hahn has lived with Bach for a long time. Her whole life. She made a Bach album in 1997, when she was but seventeen. “Promising,” critics said of her. “Nonsense,” I replied. “This girl is not promising; she has arrived.” Even at that tender age, she did justice to Bach.
I heard Milstein, when I was a youth. I am glad—equally glad—to have heard Hilary Hahn this week. And all these years.