Sacrificing playfulness for grandeur
BACH: SONATAS 1 & 2, PARTITA 1
Hilary Hahn Decca
A few weeks ago Yo-Yo Ma released a wonderful disc of Bach’s Suites for solo cello. Now comes a new recording of the first two Sonatas for solo violin, plus the first Partita, by the young American violinist Hilary Hahn, who’s now firmly established among the first-rank virtuoso players. It’s more evidence that Bach’s works for solo stringed instrument never go out of fashion. They offer a special kind of challenge to players, because woven into the music’s apparently plain melodic line are the outlines of a full, many-voiced sound. Like a portrait condensed into a silhouette, the music suggests more than it says.
The violin pieces are more obviously virtuoso, often requiring the soloist to play two, three or even four notes at once. Every bar requires musical decisions, above the complicated fugues in the violin sonatas, so the scope for variety of interpretation is immense. Some violinists, including Christian Tetzlaff, think there’s mourning hidden in the sonatas, as they were written just after the death of Bach’s first wife Maria Barbara. It gives his recent recording a special nervous intensity, which is thrilling but robs the music of its poise and grandeur.
Grandeur is definitely the keynote of Hahn’s disc, which in some respects is hugely impressive. Every time a section in a slow movement reaches its close she stretches out the final note with a long diminuendo, as if to suggest that it extends to infinity, beyond our hearing. Hahn has an ironclad technique, with superhuman bow control, and in her hands the more assertive pieces