There is an astonishing number of technically outstanding performers today. In order to stand out from the crowd, they offer increasingly broader repertories of works by lesser-known composers or lesser-known works by the great ones. We, the audience, reap the benefit, hearing things that have been hidden for years.
Saturday night violinist Hilary Hahn, accompanied by pianist Natalie Zhu, presented three novelties together with two of the tried and true. Hahn is an experienced, poised and precise performer. Every note is in place, her intonation perfect and her technique astounding. What is lacking is abandon and fire. For part of the program her lack of passion did not matter, but for the rest I sorely missed it.
The first part of the concert was devoted to the lesser-known works. In 1924 Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe (1858-1931) published a set of six technically demanding sonatas for violin solo, Op.27, inspired by J.S. Bach's sonatas and partitas for violin solo — in fact Ysaÿe quotes Bach in a number of movements. Ysaÿe dedicated each Sonata to one of his violinist colleagues, the Sonata No.1, in g minor to the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti. With technical aplomb, Hahn polished it off with a deceptive ease.
The second work on the program was quite a contrast. George Enescu (1881-1955), a Romanian composer, conductor and violinist, was a man of divided loyalties who spent a good part of his life studying and working in France. Much of his music reflects the musical trends of his adopted country during the turn of the 20th century. But he also attempted to familiarize the world with the music of his native country, using imaginative instrumental techniques to imitate the unique sounds of the native Rumanian folk instruments used in dances and of the songs. His Violin Sonata No.3 in a minor, subtitled "in the folk-character of Rumania," explains in the preface to the score a set of original symbols used in notating the folk-like music. Some of these indicated sharpening or flattening intervals by less than a whole or half step, tempo fluctuations and dynamic gradations. He also added special pedaling instructions for the pianist.
Unfortunately, in this work, Hahn's poised and cool performance missed much of the Romanian lilt (or Schmaltz?). Pianist Zhu, a 2003 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, approached the work with much more warmth and nuance, which made her part of the performance the more idiomatic and interesting. Most successful was the slow second movement with its misterioso air where there was sensitive interaction between the players.
After intermission Hahn provided a transition between the obscure and the familiar with Paganiniana, composed in 1954 by famed violinist Nathan Milstein (1904-1992). It is a set of seven extra variations and an extensive coda to the Caprice No.24 of Niccoló Paganini's 24 Caprices for violin solo, Op.1. This theme and variation has been fodder for many composers, each trying to add more variations — and the well has still not run dry. In the coda, a technical free-for-all cadenza, Hahn rose to the technical challenge with the same deceptive ease and dazzling technique she showed in the Ysaÿe sonata.
The rest of the program was the tried and true. Mozart's Violin Sonata in G Major, K.301, composed in 1778 in Mannheim during the abortive tour that took him to Paris looking in vain for positions and commissions. A lightweight, charming two-movement work, aimed at the enlightened amateur performer, the Sonata was initially intended for keyboard with flute accompaniment. Again, it was Zhu who put some emotion and warmth into the music, particularly noticeable in the gentle, minor key middle section of the second movement.
The program ended with Beethoven's Violin Sonata in E-flat, Op.12, No.3. Here again, Hahn's emotional detachment put the emphasis on technical perfection at the expense of some of Beethoven's Sturm und Drang.
Two encores rewarded the usual standing ovation: Sergey Prokofiev's march from the opera The Love for Three Oranges as arranged by Jasha Heifetz, and a tango by Isaac Albéniz as arranged by Fritz Kreisler.