Hilary Hahn with Valentina Lisitsa @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, March 2, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Though she appears on stage like a Meissen figurine, the first stroke of Hilary Hahn’s bow tells you she is Samurai. Her timbre is fearless, her tremolo is natural as laughter or the waves in a watered-steel blade. It was one of those evenings when every expression was right, except the audience, that leaked applause in all the wrong places.

Miss Hahn’s collaboration with pianist Valentina Lisitsa started out with a lightweight, virtuoso piece: Fritz Kreisler’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli (in the style of Giuseppe Tartini). Ms. Lisitsa’s piano-work flowed behind the violin like a silver stream that reflects mountain, shadow, and clouds. Very satisfactory, at every point in the program. Together they established a sense of musicality that never flagged.

The pacing of their Beethoven Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring” was magical. The interplay of voices during the very brief scherzo was like a playful chase, with one just nosing ahead of the other or else falling behind. This was one point the audience, understandably, failed to contain their excitement.

The playfulness continued to charm throughout Charles Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 4, Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting, S.63. Ives (who stopped composing in 1927) was the first American composer who didn’t sound like anybody in Europe. In his work you can hear American pop music, church music (“Jesus Loves Me,” and “Yes, we shall gather at the River”). Ives plays around with these traditional materials, pushing tonality towards chromatic effects and beyond into dissonance, atonality, polytonality, polyrhythms, and chance elements we hardly hear again till John Cage. The Hahn/Lisitsa duo’s account brought out Ives’ eccentricities in a manner that was bold, lucid and fun.

After Intermission, Ms. Hahn performed J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1002. I can’t recall a more musical performance of this Bach. During the “Sarabande” the singing tone of Ms.Hahn’s violin was so pure— as if it were arising independent of the brush of hair on strings over vibrating wood, but was just the music of space.

George Antheil’s Violin Sonata No.1, W. 130 (1923) makes beautiful music out of ugly sounds: brutally plucked pizzicati over hammered piano chords, repetitive rhythmic ideas in the mechanical-futuristic style—ostinato snarls of rush-hour traffic,  the violin’s inarticulate scratching, piano chords like shattering glass. The second and third movements feature the music of a fishbowl—spooky piano, whistling ghostly violin, a pair of goldfish patrolling their circular, viscous confinement. The fourth movement of this ‘anti-musical’ sonata reprises the theme of the first movement and then noisily deconstructs it into a blend of rolling and scratching textures. The audience went wild.

Why? Because of Ms. Hahn’s almost insolent brilliance, her commanding tone, dynamic sensitivity, her ability to change the timbre of a note half-way through it while keeping the audience’s attention on the song of the long line, the shape of the whole piece. Whatever she played made musical sense, and wherever she led, Ms. Lisitsa followed like Yang and Yin in perfect harmony.

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