Fort Worth — Hilary Hahn is nearly unquestionably one of the best violinists of her generation. Robert Levine is not only a pianist, but also a scholar—he’s a retired Harvard professor—and composer. It’s no surprise, then, that Bass Performance Hall was nearly full on Tuesday evening for a recital given by the pair.
The recital was excellent, but not the near-transcendental experience of Hahn’s previous Cliburn Concerts recital of a handful of years ago.
First, the wonderful: Hahn is a tireless crusader for contemporary music. In 2014, she released a recording of 27 encore pieces she commissioned, and she has premiered violin concertos by Edgar Meyer and Jennifer Higdon. While contemporary repertoire was certainly a small percentage of the whole on Tuesday’s recital, Hahn performed Spanish composer Antón García Abril’s Partita No. 6 for Solo Violin, “You.” It is the last of the six partitas Abril composed for Hahn, each of which is inspired by a letter of her first name and reflects some aspect of her personality. (The six are “Heart,” “Immensity,” “Love,” “Art,” “Reflexive,” and “You.”) Hahn is clearly at home in this repertoire. It displays her formidable technical chops with its many double stops and its rhythmic intensity, and also shows her stamina: this one-movement partita requires nonstop concentration from its performer.
Pianist Robert Levin also performed a contemporary solo work, Hans Peter Türk’s “Träume” (Dreams). Written for Levin, the piece is, according to the composer, designed to be played in an improvisatory style. Levin, too, seems comfortable with this repertoire, moving ably from melodic lyricism (was that a quote from Brahms’ “Lullaby” I heard?) into a technique-heavy, flying tour de force.
Further, the duo’s Mozart—they performed the Sonata for Piano and Violin in E-flat Major, K. 481—was exemplary. Levin is a specialist in Mozart and other Classical composers, having written a new completion of Mozart’s Requiem and finished other pieces left incomplete at the composer’s death. So this is a musician who understands Mozart intimately, and Hahn, too, is a thoughtful musical scholar. It’s no surprise, then, that their interpretation of this sonata was sensitive, focused, and nuanced, with impeccable phrasing, gorgeous tone, and respectful balance.
The highlight of the evening, though, was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano in A Major (“Kreutzer”). While the first movement was occasionally a bit heavy, in both violin and piano, overall the collaboration here was excellent. It is visually bothersome that Levin almost never makes eye contact with Hahn, but it seems to work for them. The piano-heavy second movement was an apt vehicle for Levin’s skills, and Hahn’s range of colors, her near-perfect vibrato, and her flawless intonation are a wonder.
But. The recital began with J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 6 in G Major for Violin and Keyboard, BWV 1019. A musician’s interpretation of Bach is telling, and Hahn’s and Levin’s didn’t quite work. The balance was somewhat piano-heavy when Hahn’s part was foremost, and most problematically, Levin didn’t always coax a distinct melodic line out of his part. However, Hahn’s vibrato was appropriately sparing, and her tone glowed. Still, Bach is perhaps not this duo’s ideal program opener.
Hahn and Levin’s encore, Max Richter’s “Mercy,” is one of the 27 encore pieces she commissioned. It is a gorgeous, tonal, lyrical piece, and demonstrated her ability to shape a line, and displayed her extraordinary bow control—her bow changes are as inaudible as she wishes them to be. Hilary Hahn is an extraordinary musician, and always worth hearing. Tuesday night’s recital, despite its flaws, was no exception.