What Hilary Hahn Plays
Instrument 1865 Vuillaume Strad-model violin
Bow A gold-mounted Tubbs
Strings Thomastik-Infeld Dominants, Pirastro Gold Label E
The music of Bach has been central to Hilary Hahn since her earliest years. She was nine when she began learning the Siciliana and Presto from Bach’s first solo sonata with her teacher Klara Berkovich, and ten when she played Bach at her first solo recital. Jascha Brodsky, Hahn’s teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, insisted she be prepared to play solo Bach at every lesson. “So I always had to have Bach ready to go,” Hahn says. “That’s why for pretty much all of my life I’ve practiced solo Bach almost every day.”
In 1997, Hahn made her first recording featuring—what else?—solo Bach (Sonata No. 3 and Partitas Nos. 2 and 3). Reviewers were astonished by the maturity of the 17-year-old violinist. Stereo Review wrote, “This is simply a magnificent performance, completely true in all its parts and possessed of a depth and wisdom that belie the performer’s age. Unlike most of the violinists who play this music, she is truly its master, and that frees her to play it with soul.”
Hahn subsequently recorded Bach’s violin concertos and an album of Bach’s voice and violin music, and she recently commissioned six new partitas for solo violin by Antón García Abril. Go to one of her concerts today and you may well hear her play Bach as an encore.
So if Bach is so essential to Hilary Hahn, why is it only now, in 2018 when she’s 38, that she’s finally releasing a disc of all the sonatas and partitas not included on the first album?
It’s an obvious question, and it’s the first one I put to Hahn when I reach her by phone one summer day. She’s walking through a park near her home as we speak, but remains focused throughout. Her answers are carefully calibrated and thoughtful, very much in keeping with the playing style of this much-admired, self-possessed violinist.
She answers first by explaining why she chose Bach for her debut album. “I didn’t want to start my recording career with something I didn’t feel I knew inside and out. I figured the thing I had the most experience with and the best chance of being able to convey that on a recording was solo Bach.”
After that career-defining recording, Hahn was regularly asked why she didn’t record the rest of the set. “I didn’t want to finish it; I wanted it to be ahead of me,” she recalls. “Once I finished I knew there would be nothing else to do but re-record it someday and didn’t want to be in that situation yet.”
Flash forward 17 years, and Hahn was ready to reconsider. “I just kept saving it and saving it, and then I was twice the age I was when I recorded it for the first time. I thought, well, that’s a convenient number as a benchmark to finish the set.” She recorded the remaining solo pieces but “didn’t tell anyone.” When she was finished, she hesitated to listen back to the recordings. Time went by.
“About two years ago, I thought, well, it’s time,” she says. But before she sat down to listen, she booked more recording sessions in case she wanted to re-record “something I don’t agree with any more,” she explains. “Then I listened. I thought, wow, some of that stuff, I wouldn’t think of that today: I like that! And other things I thought, well, I would maybe try them differently so let me try them differently. I always wondered what it would be like to make a recording twice.” She now knows.
“‘There was this one recital where I was playing the Chaconne and all of the sudden the structure of it just clicked for me.’”
The resulting album, Hilary Hahn Plays Bach, like its predecessor, intermingles tracks from the two recent recording dates. Hahn claims not to recall which track came from which recording date: “It flows together so well for me.” Those with particularly acute ears may notice that she changed violins from one session to the other (from an 1864 Guarneri-model Vuillaume to a Strad-model Vuillaume from 1865). She worked in both sessions with legendary producer-engineer Andreas Meyer. “We work well as a team—me onstage and him in the control booth.”
Will her longterm fans find a radically different Hilary Hahn on the new Bach CD? Hahn says, “When I listen to that first Bach recording I think my tempi might be different now but I still think I sound like the same player, and my aesthetic model has not changed.” That aesthetic model was shaped by Brodsky and by the Golden Age violinists whose recordings she listened to avidly as a youngster: Grumiaux, Heifetz, Elman, Milstein.
I tell her how much I like her feeling for movement and rhythm in Bach on the new recording, such as in the Presto of Sonata No. 1.
“That was definitely something I was really trying to capture,” she says. “The solo sonatas and partitas sound so different when different people play them partly because there’s such freedom of choice. You’re the only person playing yet there are a lot of voices being played at the same time. You can choose to be your own metronome or you can choose to turn off your own metronome. You can base your rhythmic structure around a beat or around a bar line, or around nothing at all. I think that is a huge part of interpreting these works.
“I do like to solidify these rhythms somewhat. It’s almost like there’s a metronome running somewhere in the background and ever so often I’m on it, but the rest of the time I know where it is, but I’m bending the rhythm around the individual beats.”
You might expect that the violinist behind the popular 100 days of practice project would have something to say about learning Bach, and she does. She advises recording your Bach and asking yourself if your playing is regular, rhythmic, or artificial. In Bach’s music, rhythm is “sort of an illusion,” she says.
To illustrate this, she talks about playing chords: “Do you put the beat on the bottom or the top? I find that sometimes in the slow movements it helps to suspend the beat or the rhythm. Say you’re playing in one voice, and the lower voice comes in the bottom of the chord, and then you break the chord and then the top voice carries on. If you have a metronome on, you would push the button to stop it when you arrive at the bottom of the chord, suspend the sense of rhythm and start the beat again, fresh, at the top of the chord. It sounds like you’re in tempo, but if you had left the metronome running, you’d be way off.
“I really like thinking about stuff like that and how I can keep these separate lines going, how I can phrase them separately and yet have them dovetail together. I don’t know if I’m thinking analytically all the time, but it helps to be aware of the different ways that you can move the music to convey what you’re trying to convey.”
Her analytical mind keeps churning away in live performance, too. “There was this one recital where I was playing the Chaconne and all of the sudden the structure of it just clicked for me. I remember that feeling of, ooh I see! You suddenly step back from the tapestry and you see what the picture is.”
In preparing to record Bach, Hahn studied different urtext editions and referred back to the manuscript. Though she listens to period performances of Bach, she explains that she “was taught very old school. My teacher, Jascha Brodsky, was born in 1907 so there’s a certain stylistic aesthetic I was taught very strongly. That is my basis but I’m also aware that there are a lot more options now for interpretation. One of the really great things about this music is that it works completely convincingly with all of these different styles.”
Can we look forward to a revisit of the sonatas and partitas in another ten years? “This one hasn’t come out yet!” she says, with a slightly exasperated, give-me-a-break tone. “It took me about 20 years to finish the set, so I don’t think I’ll go over any of them again anytime soon. Let’s let this one live and then we’ll see.” A beat goes by, and she adds, “I see the value of making a recording two, three, four decades after you’ve made it the first time, because things change.”
Things have changed dramatically in the classical-music world since 1997 and Hahn’s first Bach recording. “I started recording in a time when it was very common to make a record every year. CDs were a new technology and record companies were trying to make recordings of everything. Now it’s a different situation. There isn’t the same push to put out a new album every year if you’re a new artist—it’s more like, which project rings true? And I like that way, too. I’m very glad I had the opportunity to do what I did at the time I did, because I got to make a lot of orchestral recordings. Now I just like to focus on the projects that are really compelling me to record them right now. That Bach was definitely a case of that. I felt that this was the time I needed to do this—I needed to finish this project. I had something to say with these pieces that I want to put out there.”
Although she has now recorded all of the sonatas and partitas, you can be sure that this new recording will not be Hilary Hahn’s last word on Bach.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Strings magazine.