by James Leonard
Beyond all argument, Hilary Hahn is an amazing young (twenty-four) violin virtuoso. Her 1999 recording of Bach's Ciaccona for Sony Classics was a technical tour de force that quickly became one of the best-selling classical discs of the year. Hahn went on to record many of the big hits of the standard repertoire; she won a Grammy in 2002 for her recording of the Mendelssohn Concerto. Now Hahn has signed with Deutsche Grammophon to record the rest of the standard concerto repertoire along with chamber music and other projects. At a time when major artists are searching for record deals, Hahn's success is almost as astounding as her virtuosity.
As anyone who hears her play the Ciaccona on Thursday, February 12, at Hill Auditorium will discover, Hilary Hahn is an astonishing performer. Her legato is like butter, her vibrato like honey. Her portamento is discreet but very, very effective. Her tone is rich and deep. Her bow arm is strong and sensitive. Her dexterity is blindingly brilliant. Her interpretations are brightly polished. Whatever you want, Hahn's got it, and whatever you can do with it, Hahn's done. The only thing she lacks is maturity.
But maturity is a big thing to lack in the Ciaccona. As well as being the supreme test for every violinist, the Ciaccona is one of the most sublimely inspired works ever composed for any instrument. Hahn's playing is practically perfect in every way, but virtuosity is not the whole thing for a violinist. The hard part is the sublime inspiration. And while sublime inspiration can strike at any age, the capacity to realize and communicate that inspiration does come with age.
For all her astounding skill, Hahn's recording of the Ciaccona is still cold and severe, a demonstration of her technique but not much else. And Hahn's subsequent recordings have gotten so hard as to be almost fierce. For all her practical perfection, Hahn has yet to sound the depths of the music she records.
Along with the Bach, Hahn will be performing two sonatas by Mozart and one by Ysaye. The Mozarts are light and delightful, and the Ysaye supervirtuosic. While it will be interesting to hear what Hahn does with delightful and supervirtuosic pieces, the sublime Ciaccona is what everyone will be there to hear Hahn play.
[Originally published in February, 2004.]