Hahn and Levin make companionable duo in Celebrity Series recital

April 2, 2017 at 11:56 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Hilary Hahn and Robert Levin performed Saturday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres.

Hilary Hahn and Robert Levin performed Saturday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres.

Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Robert Levin seem to come from two different musical worlds. Hahn has been a proponent of new music, spearheading the largest commissioning project for new violin repertoire in recent memory, which has included Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Violin Concerto. Levin, meanwhile, is a musician traditionally steeped in scholarship, his plunges into Mozart research yielding fascinating new interpretations of the cadenzas in the composer’s piano concertos. 

Yet both musicians have a thoughtful appreciation for the specialties of the other. Hahn is a foremost Bach interpreter and Levin has been on the receiving end of some new piano works in recent years.

Their joint recital Saturday night at Jordan Hall as part of the Celebrity Series brought the best of both worlds. The duo rendered delicate performances of sonatas by Bach and Mozart, a showpiece by Schubert, and recent works by Antón García Abril and Hans Peter Türk.

Hahn commissioned a set of six partitas from Abril in 2015, and she has been performing them in her recitals around the country. Each piece in the set reflects words associated with the letters of Hahn’s first name. The final piece, entitled “You,” was heard Saturday night.

The eight-minute piece draws upon a wide variety of techniques and colors. An opening figure winds up and down the instrument, coming to rest on a pristine chord. Abril’s harmony is occasionally thorny in the double-stop passages. Elsewhere the piece unfolds in a series of whistle tones and double stops. There are also some fiery passages that seem to come out of nowhere. Ultimately, “You” doesn’t measure up to the sum of its parts; passages seem to flow in and out of one another without creating a grand narrative.

Yet this is clearly a work that Hahn believes in, and she delivered a robust and dramatic performance. Her playing was thoroughly expressive, silky smooth in the soft sections and edgy and dark in the quicker passages. Abril, who was in the audience, received a standing ovation for the work.

Hans Peter Türk’s Träume, an eight-minute piano work written for Robert Levin, proved more successful. Premiered at Sanders Theatre in 2014 by Levin, the work was written in memory of Türk’s late wife. The title translates to “Dream,” and, as it suggests, effectively captures a state between reality and memory.

The work opens with a lonely phrase in the middle of the keyboard that is soon framed by deep bass notes and crystalline figures in the upper register. The opening tune is a constant theme, and in recurring statements it comes close to resembling the first few notes of Brahms’ Lullaby.

But the music also turns to darkness. Türk’s harmony is glassy and deep even in the passages of bursting energy. Levin, through playing of rich lyricism, found the power and depth of this interesting piece.

For the rest of the program, Hahn and Levin teamed up for works by Bach, Mozart, and Schubert.

Bach’s Sonata No. 6 for piano and violin, BWV 1019 and Mozart’s Sonata in E-flat major, K. 481 are duos in the full sense of the word. Hahn and Levin made for simpatico partners, with the violinist’s playing taking on bright colors in the Bach and a tender, more lyrical tone in the Mozart. Levin brought dexterous technique and fine touch to both works. In the third movement of the Bach sonata, which featured Levin by himself, his phrases swirled elegantly in a singing, almost fruity tone. In the fourth movement Hahn’s violin seemed to be accompanying Levin’s lyrical phrases. In the final movement the two engaged in music of playful energy.

Many of the Mozart’s violin sonatas are juvenilia, but K. 481 is a mature work rich in flowering melody. In Saturday’s performance, the first movement had moments of drama, with Hahn and Levin traversing both the delicate and dark themes with finesse. Levin was the focus of the second movement as he conjured soft phrases with clean, pure tone. When Hahn took over in the second theme, she spun an aria-like melody with light rubato shading. The firm and stately finale was a true Allegretto, the phrases unfolding into a freely expressive cadenza and brisk, propelling coda.

Schubert’s Rondo in B minor for violin and piano, D. 895 brought the greatest musical spectacle. The work is a true showpiece that covers a range of shifting moods as well as passages of blazing technical flourish. Levin and Hahn played it with weight and energy without going over the edge. Hahn’s tone managed to sing beautifully even in the most aggressive passages. The duo seemed to breathe together in the soft sections that build to the robust false endings. The two musicians saved the best for last as they brought the piece to a rousing conclusion.

Long and rapturous applause brought Hahn and Levin back to the stage for three encores. Max Richter’s “Mercanother Hahn commission–was in turns dreamy, melancholic, and seductive. Lili Boulanger’s Cortège was stirring, and her Nocturne swelled fully in the climactic parts. These short works revealed yet again that Hahn and Levin are a duo of rare and sensitive musicality.

The next classical music event sponsored by the Celebrity Series will feature the Escher String Quartet in works by Beethoven, Debussy, and Webern 8 p.m. April 12 at Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661.

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Hahn and Levin make companionable duo in Celebrity Series recital”

  1. Posted Apr 02, 2017 at 5:19 pm by Richard Riley

    I attended Saturdays show and sadly the end should have been the beginning. The 3 encore pieces took off into the ethereal unknown with exuberance and passion. If you prefer the dessert before the main course than you know what I mean. It was as they were just going thru the motions in the first half devoid of innovation but palatable for the adoring audience. They could do no wrong. There techniques were fabulous but aimed at the head rather than the heart with the exception of the encores