CD Review: ‘In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores’

CD Review: ‘In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores’

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Hilary Hahn, violin, accompanied by Valentina Lisitsa, piano, Clark State Performing Arts Center, Springfield, Ohio, March 3, 2009. (Credit: Ben Murphy via en.Wikipedia, Creative Commons Share-alike license 3.0.)

COLLEGE PARK, Md., February 18, 2014 – Hilary Hahn is in danger of becoming entirely relevant in the new music community, a rare distinction for such a “mainstream” classical performer. In 2012, she teamed up with prepared piano master Haushka to create the luminous and memorable album “Silfra.” One year later, she would release “In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores,” a dual disc collection of wildly diverse violin encores with piano accompaniment by Cory Smythe.

This more recent release is a fascinating snapshot of the current new music scene, featuring, as it does, immortalized performances of each work that will give any number of composers a strong case of recording envy.

Album cover, "Hilary Hahn Encores."
Album cover, “Hilary Hahn Encores.”

Hahn’s playing meshes impeccably with the fine craft of pianist Cory Smythe, lending an aura of perfection to each track. Yet as predictable as the performance quality is the fact that this album is an uneven collection in terms of compositional quality.

For example, the opening work in this collection−“Impulse” by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh−offers a wonderfully energetic and eclectic start to the compilation. In contrast, it is followed quickly by the disarmingly melodic, sparse and simple “Bifu” of Somei Satoh.

David Lang’s “light moving” is a predictable, shimmering nugget of sound from this minimalistic master, while Paul Moravec’s “Blue Fiddle” is an emotionally intense and aggressive work whose meandering tonality will not to be every listener’s taste. In certain cases it seems that composers featured on this recording simply tried to accomplish too much in too short of a timespan, an understandable and forgivable impulse for anyone faced with the possibility of a recorded Hahn performance.

The far superior second disc begins with the evocative “Coming To” by Christos Hatzis. Building on gentle undulating textures interspersed with unsettling glissandi and moments of quasi-improv-sounding interludes, the work seems to evoke the state of a somewhat peaceful but confused “waking,” whether it is meant to be a metaphorical or a literal picturing. Just as quickly as the listener “comes to,” they are on their feet and moving frenetically. It is a lovely work that leaves us wanting more.

Jeff Myers’ “The Angry Birds of Kuwai” and Mark Anthony Turnage’s “Hilary’s Hoedown” are wonderfully witty character pieces, while Valentin Silvestrov’s simply named “Two Pieces” are tuneful and gentle little musical pearls that provide a wonderful contrast to the works yet to come.

Kala Ramanth’s “Aalap and Tarana” is a real highlight of this set, transporting the Hahn/Smythe duo into a decidedly eastern sound world through the judicious combination of traditional and extended techniques on both instruments.

Tina Davidson’s “Blue Curve of the Earth” grows from a tiny pizzicato figure into a lyrical world that literally seems capable of embracing the horizon. It is a shamelessly lovely piece. Michiru Oshima’s “Memories” begins in a similar fashion, but ultimately attempts to pack too much material into a four-minute piece, an understandable yet over-enthusiastic gesture for which, perhaps, he should be forgiven.

It is somewhat difficult to understand what composer Nico Muhly is trying to express in his “Two Voices.” The piano accompaniment drones softly on only a handful of repeated notes in Goreckian manner, while (presumably) the other “voice” in the violin dances confusedly around this evocatively simple accompaniment. One is left with the sense that this is an incomplete sketch rather than a cohesive work worthy of this young composer’s already considerable renown.        

It was a fitting choice to conclude this recording with Max Richter’s “Mercy.” Aside from being achingly beautiful, this composition is perhaps the most complete and unified work to appear on this album.

Growing from a simple repetition of pedaled piano chords and single lyrically pronounced mid-range notes in the violin, Richter’s music expands gradually and perfectly into a colossal yet lyrical statement of profound effect. The work’s bewitching climax offers a mere taste of this moment, however, dissolving quickly and returning to the melancholy opening theme, which itself finally fading into the pedal-sustained tones of the piano.

The effect of this composition is not unlike glimpsing the image of a theatrical performer exiting the stage sadly, unfulfilled and desirous of redemption despite having actually performed well. “Mercy” proves to be an ideal curtain call for this album, and hopefully a hint at future such recordings to come from this fine pair of performing artists.        

In the final analysis, this is an album likely to receive varying critical appraisals. New tonalists might lament some of the spikier music appearing on this album, while besieged modernists will deride what they might perceive as the willful indulgence of “regressive” composers.

For those listeners who might find the music on this album initially underwhelming, we can offer assurance that this is an album whose worth grows with every listening. True, not every work is a modern masterpiece worthy of its star performer. But most of the works included here are indeed important and beautiful musical statements.        

It is amusing to read in her liner notes to this collection that Hahn made “nervous cold calls” to a number of composers. She needn’t have been concerned. One can only imagine the resulting joyful backflips (metaphorical and literal) that these composers must have spontaneously indulged in after hanging up the phone.

“In 27 Pieces” includes the works of both established and emerging composers, making it an ideal model for future imitators. Hilary Hahn has reminded us that there is no shortage of quality music being written by living composers, and we can only hope that other performers take her enthusiastic cue.

For both newer composers and lovers of music new and old, we can now combine our admiration of Hahn’s flawless playing with a sincere appreciation of her surprisingly humble and respectful patronage of notable yet often unfairly obscure living composers journeying through various stages of their careers.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars.)

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