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Hilary Hahn at ECU: Simply Terrific!

by William Thomas Walker

January 5, 2007, Greenville, NC: The atmosphere outside ECU's Wright Auditorium was most unlike winter: it was warm and muggy, threatening rain. Inside, it was not any better; alas, the hall's chiller system was down and out. On stage, the sizzling technique and musicianship of violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Valentina Lisitsa held listeners' attention and made the masochistic sauna well worth enduring. Hahn's refined facility combined with her responsive instrument to produce a full and warm tone that easily filled the hall even during the quietest passages while never sounding forced during the loudest. Lisitsa was far from the deferring accompanist in the shadow of the great virtuoso. When the composer gave the lead to the keyboard, she gave its full value, and Hahn was just as sensitive, playing accompanying violin passages as such. The piano's lid was fully raised but Lisitsa balanced its dynamics perfectly, never covering the violin's solo line.

Brno native Leos Janácek (1854-1928) began his Sonata for Violin and Piano, JW 7, while Moravians awaited liberation from the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Russian forces at the beginning of World War I. He revised the score over seven years, completing it in 1921. The first movement features agitated exchanges between the violin and piano. The violin speaks in the composer's characteristic short and choppy phrases. The piano sometimes evokes the sound of a cimbalom, the Hungarian zither. In contrast, the violin sings long-phrased melodies in the second movement, marked "Ballada," the only movement unchanged by the composer. The mood is pastoral. The three-part third movement contrasts folk-like elements in the piano with interjected descending scales from the violin. The modal concluding Adagio opens with passages marked "ferocious" and features leaping bowings along with gorgeous trills from both players. At the end, the violin sings a chorale above a high trill in the piano. Hahn's refined dynamics and precise intonation repaid dividends in conveying Janácek's unique sound world. Her phrasing was idiomatic and ravishing. Lisitsa brought out the full range of color in the piano part.

Mozart's elegant and gallant Sonata No. 22 in A, K.305, made fine contrast to the Janácek piece. This early sonata is in two movements — an allegro that suggests hunting music, followed by a set of variations. Hahn played with cool elegance. Mozart gives the pianist a chance to shine with an extended solo role in one of the variations. Lisitsa made the most of it.

If Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) is to be believed, his subconscious mind played a role in the origin of his famous Sonata in G minor, known as "The Devil's Trill." The composer dreamed that the devil came to him and asked Tartini to become his servant. To test the devil's virtuosity, the composer gave his violin to Hell's master, who proceeded to play flawlessly and with peerless dexterity. As soon as Tartini woke up, he tried to capture the spirit and power of the performance that he had imagined. About this work, violinist Simon Hewitt Jones writes (at, "in structure and spirit, the 'Devil's Trill' Sonata is utterly diabolical, featuring a powerful, wild eerie collection of striking chords, tremolos and other embellishments. These figurations drive the piece forward and are a stark contrast to the steady and controlled piano accompaniment." Hahn's fingerings and bowing were unerring as she conjured the composer's deviltry with aplomb. Unlike too many post-MTV generation soloists, Hahn does not feel any need to "mime" the music with extra-musical twists and turns. While she is not as monolithic as "Old Stone Face" (Jascha Heifetz), Hahn truly stands and delivers the music.

After listening to the solo Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Op. 27/2 ("Obsession"), by Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931), I half-jokingly told a friend this was "Rach. Meets Bach..." — what a solo violin sonata by Rachmaninov might have sounded like. The first two movements were inspired by Bach's E Major Partita, and every movement is insistently haunted by the Gregorian Dies irae. Hahn's playing of the first three movements was breathtaking; the eyes almost doubted the complexities heard by the ears. The opening notes of the last movement proved Hahn to be a mortal human being. For the first time in four concerts I have heard her give, she fluffed a note. She blushed apologetically, restarted the movement and played it perfectly. She was warmly applauded.

Hahn and Lisitsa ended the concert with a fiery and passionate performance of Beethoven's well-known Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47 ("Kreutzer"). This was true chamber music with an equal give-and-take between both artists and richly deserving the standing ovation it was given.

Just two hours before the concert, Hahn learned that her late grandfather had been chaplain in Wright Auditorium in 1942 during WWII. She dedicated her meditative encore, Paganini's Cantabile for violin and piano, in memory of her relative.

Hahn patiently and warmly received a multitude of autograph-seeking fans, signing their programs and recordings for a long time after the concert. Hahn's amalgam of musicianship with virtuosity makes her stand out well above the run of competition winners. Lisitsa is a welcome keyboard player to watch for in the future.

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