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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kicking and Screaming

Tuning Atonally Dept.: Hilary Hahn stopped by the Troy Music Hall last week to give a recital of works that proved a bit too demanding on the ear for the squirmy audience. I’m afraid it pissed me off a little, as my Metroland review suggests.


O Hilary: Why do you seek to drag us into the 21st century? Or the 20th, for that matter? You’re an international star, one of the finest of violin soloists, and you could have eased into last week’s recital at the Troy Music Hall with something familiar and therefore easy on our nervous ears—but you started with Arnold Schoenberg.

Hilary Hahn
Nine minutes of aggressively unpretty music, that Schoenberg “Phantasy,” written at the end of the composer’s life, densely adhering to his mathematic principals, music with no desire to reach out in friendship. The thing is, we love melody. Oh, sure, there’s all that business about melody just being the drapery over a harmonic progression the tension and release of which is what actually makes us happy, and Schoenberg forged paths of tension and release not dependent on dominant to tonic resolution—but, see, we like those V7s to Is. We’re baffled by a strident-sounding tension-release sequence where the release is only slightly less tense than the tension itself.

But good lord you do play the hell out of that instrument. Both of you, in fact, because, although pianist Cory Smythe didn’t have false harmonics and acrobatic leaps from the G to the E string to deal with, he still had to make his way pretty swiftly around the keyboard (in an opening marked Grave, no less) and deal with an astonishing variety of rhythmic challenges, not least of which the hemiola in the Lento section.

Now, we were all set for that Schubert, even if it, too, was called a fantasy—“Fantasia,” in this case, written at the end of his life. It’s a strange work, even for Schubert, in seven sections, the most prominent of which is an Andantino theme and variations. That’s where it’s most accessible—there are repeats galore, so we miss nothing—but the canonic interplay of the preceding Allegretto is the more interesting, for a reason I can’t say I’m too pleased to realize: listening to the Schoenberg set me up to appreciate it.

But even the early Beethoven sonatas get played more than this piece, hint hint. There at least you’ve got an easy-to-follow three- or four-movement structure.

So after the break you went back the Land of Obscure Repertory, ditching the pianist to play one of Telemann’s unaccompanied sonatas, also called a fantasia. Even though it’s a short four-movement work, it’s not familiar and demands a lot of work following the violin through the contrapuntal paces the composer injected. The violin’s curved bridge limits the playing to two notes at once, so sometimes the harmonic line is merely suggested. At least the third-movement Siciliana sounds a little like the opening of Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” sonata. That gave us something to hang on to.

You promised us Mozart. But you made us listen to works by two of the many composers from whom you commissioned short pieces collected on your Encores recording.

Welsh-born composer Richard Barrett, a stripling of 55, packed a four-movement structure into Shade, but freed it from the constraints of memorable melody. Which meant we had to pay all the more attention (if we weren’t glowering or fidgeting, as happened around me) to the textural variety of the progressions tossed between instruments (Smythe was back for this one and most of the rest of the program). Kind of like . . . you did it again. All right: it was kind of like that Schubert Allegretto, which set us up for this one.

Sounds like Spanish composer Anton Garcia Abril was more than happy to comply with your commission. As you explained, he wrote three pieces instead of one, and, although you recorded only one of them, you’ve performed another and you chose us as the premiere audience for the third. Tres sospiros (“Three Sighs”) they’re titled, and even in the gossamer nature of the works we could feel rhythms of Spain and the influence of Turina. The second sigh, the premiere, was for unaccompanied fiddle, and its recitative-like nature resonated with the Telemann piece.

Thank goodness: Mozart. What? Nobody knows his Sonata in A Major, K. 305! True, it’s one of his later violin sonatas, thus awarding a more equal partnership to the instruments. And the opening theme has a pop-song jauntiness to it, carrying us through a first movement that’s as sunny as A-major typically demands. But it ends after the second movement’s theme and variations (which has the gall to dump the violin out of the first of those variations)!

Where was the Sarasate? The Wieniawski? The Paganini, for crying out loud? You encored with another one of those damn Encore encores, this one Max Richter’s Mercy, and I don’t care if he made such a success with his merry re-working of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; here, we had a slow, beautifully atmospheric melody (finally!) taking shape over halting piano phrases—and, aside from the astonishing sight and sound of your seamless bowing, the only virtuoso activity thus called for was in my own brain, sorting out the chaconne-like progression of this piece.

And then it was out into the chilly night air, where our horses stamped restlessly at curbside, waiting to trundle us home.

Hilary Hahn, violinist
Cory Smythe, pianist

Troy Chromatic Concerts,
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, April 16

Metroland Magazine, 24 April, 2014

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