Hahn’s luminous Brahms defines the art that conceals art with BSO

April 19, 2024 at 12:50 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Hilary Hahn performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Winslow Townson

Thursday night’s performance from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons wasn’t quite a tale of two concerts. But one half of the evening featured Hilary Hahn and the other didn’t. Such was the violinist’s musicianship that her hour onstage largely overshadowed all that came before.

Certainly, it didn’t hurt that Hahn was playing Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto. A favorite since its 1879 premiere, the score represents one of the towering entries in the genre.

Despite a storied lineage with the BSO—more than fifty virtuosi (including Fritz Kreisler, Carl Flesch, Jascha Heifetz, and David Oistrakh) have been featured in the work at Symphony Hall since 1889—Hahn ensured that Thursday’s account of the warhorse was anything but complacent or rote.

She managed as much without resorting to excesses or histrionics. In fact, Hahn’s whole interpretation seemed to hinge on the idea that a great artist can shape even a canonic icon through, principally, attention to foundational musical elements, in this case dynamics, tone color, and phrasing.

The violinist dispatched her opening roulades with a mix of gripping storminess from her bow hand and immaculate clarity from her left. The results felt and sounded ideal—searching, tempestuous, unsettled. She brought bristling energy, as well, to the movement’s episodes of bariolage and imbued the cadenza with a questing sense of atmosphere.

Yet the night’s reading, with its huge dynamic range, hardly wanted for warmth or allure. Indeed, there was a becoming sweetness to the concerto’s lyrical turns, be those Hahn’s takes on the transformations of the first movement’s initial subject or her realizations of the Adagio’s soaring lines.

For spunk and vinegar, the finale came across as a model of Brahmsian abandon. All of it—the dancing main theme, impeccably songful double stops, sweeping final runs—unfolded with absorbing flexibility and fluency.

In both the Brahms and her encore of the Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s D-minor Partita, Hahn phrased the music’s recurring thematic ideas to highlight, on each turn, different aspects of their color and shape—as though she were holding up these familiar passages to the light and examining them from different angles—giving her entire performance a compelling narrative logic.

Nelsons and the BSO brought rhythmic and dynamic urgency to their accompaniments as well as, in the middle movement, a series of beautifully sculpted solos. Though the orchestra’s echoes of certain of Hahn’s phrases in the finale felt mannered, their larger account was palpably focused and well-balanced.

Similar qualities also defined the night’s opener, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Archora.

Written in 2022, this 20-minute-long effort takes as its departure point “the notion of a primordial energy and the idea of an omnipresent parallel realm.” Be that as it may, the music’s effect, to positively repurpose Copland’s epithet vis-à-vis Vaughan Williams, is akin to sitting on an Icelandic beach and watching the horizon shift on the Norwegian Sea for about a third of an hour.

Over that timeframe, a series of slowly morphing gestures are passed through the orchestra. As they rise and splinter, other sounds—weirdly glinting percussion, pitch-less woodwind and brass figures—emerge. Often, the tone is ominous, though glimmers of light appear, as do a few mantra-like rhythms.

Though Archora’s materials are such that the score wears its duration a bit heavily, Thorvaldsdottir’s ear for sonority and texture never fails to impress. For elemental rigor, too, hers is a score that offers more than a little Sibelius-like inevitability. Thursday’s well-balanced, Technicolor reading from Nelsons and the BSO confirmed as much.

The pairing was on less firm footing, though, in Mozart’s Symphony No. 33. Though the woodwinds’ ensemble in the Andante was warm, parts of the finale charmed, and the BSO demonstrated a strong attention to contrasts of dynamics throughout, Thursday’s take on this 1779 curiosity was, overall, rhythmically flat-footed and texturally ill-defined.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org

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