Charles Petzold

Hilary Hahn and the Ives Violin Sonatas

November 21, 2011
New York, N.Y.

Three years ago I read that Hilary Hahn had recorded the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, and I was certain that must be a mistake. Surely the reference was to the violin concerto by Arnold Schoenberg's student Alban Berg. I wasn't even sure that Schoenberg had composed a violin concerto!

I was wrong, but there was a good reason for my confusion: Arnold Schoenberg's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 36 (completed in 1936 but not performed until 1940) had the reputation of being devilishly difficult and listener unfriendly. (Schoenberg himself said of it "I am delighted to add another unplayable work to the repertoire.") Only a few recordings existed — compared to over 25 renditions of the Berg Violin Concerto — and I believe that Hahn's was the first new recording in over 20 years.

To many listeners of classical music, Arnold Schoenberg is still a notorious bogeyman — even among those who should know better. The late philosopher of art Denis Dutton, for example, in his book The Art Instinct (which I discussed here) allowed many extreme forms of expression into his definition of art, but he drew the line at Arnold Schoenberg (p. 216-7).

If that attitude ever changes, I suspect it might be at least partially due to Hilary Hahn's performance of Schoenberg's Violin Concerto with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. This is a breathtaking revelatory performance of a seriously neglected work. Listening to it certainly requires more than the usual amount of focus and concentration, but it pays off in richly absorbing textures and passages of pure — yes, I'll say it — lyricism.

The Schoenberg recording is paired with a much more famous work — you can pick from over 70 other violinists in recordings of the Sibelius Violin Concerto — but notice that the Schoenberg gets top billing. The Sibelius is the "B-side," if you will. Hahn's Sibelius is a wonderful performance, but next to the Schoenberg the work seems rather quaint.

In its own way, Hilary Hahn's next recording was just as unusual and interesting. Two of Hahn's early recordings were of the music of Bach, and this was a return to that composer. But now she joined with soprano Christine Schäfer and baritone Matthias Goerne for a CD entitled Bach: Violin and Voice — a collection of movements from nine different Bach cantatas, the Mass in B Minor, and the St. Matthew Passion, mostly arias (one duet) but all also featuring parts for solo violin.

Simply as a selection of Bach's vocal music, this would have been a great CD even without Miss Hahn's participation! But the collection highlights Bach's writing for violin within the context of his vocal music, so we can listen to these movements not just as arias, but as duets of voice and violin, with "Wann kommst du, mein Heil?" from Cantata 140 becoming a trio for soprano, baritone, and violin. Part of the pleasure of focusing more on the violin part is hearing how it switches from a solo role to an accompaniment role. These are not virtuoso violin parts like the Bach Violin Concertos or the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, but because of their seeming simplicity and integration into the composition, they are often extraordinarily beautiful, and for that reason Bach: Violin and Voice has become one of my very favorite Bach recordings.

By this time, it must have been clear that Hilary Hahn's label switch from Sony to Deutsche Grammophon — apparently over a difference of opinion about future recording projects — was working out just fine, and resulting in some very daring and intelligent choices.

I've already discussed Hilary Hahn's recording of Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto in my blog entry The Joyous Music of Jennifer Higdon and I also had the opportunity to see it performed live. Notice, however, that the B-side on this CD is the most chestnutty of all violin concerto chestnuts — normally a composition that seems to me to have minimal music content — but Hilary Hahn manages to make even Tchaikovsky interesting, in part by choosing to perform a rare pre-revision version of the concerto.

Looking back over the past 14 years of Hilary Hahn's recordings, we see a considerable number of 20th and 21st century composers — Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Edgar Meyer, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Louis Spohr, Schoenberg, and Higdon — but I also count four American composers, so perhaps I shouldn't have been that surprised to see Hahn take on the most archetypal American of American composers, Charles Ives.

Charles Ives' four Sonatas for Violin and Piano have only been recorded a handful of times, and not ever (I think) by a violinist of Hahn's caliber. With Valentina Lisitsa on piano (serving as much more than an simple) accompanist, Hahn's handling of this music suddenly elevates them to the status of major Ives compositions, along with the four symphonies, Three Places in New England, and the Concord Sonata

These four sontatas were all composed in the first 15 years of the 20th century, and perhaps fiddled with in the decades thereafter. All four have three movements — the first and last with a fast-slow-fast structure, and the other two with a slow-fast-slow — and all display Ives' characteristic dense textures, irregular rhythms, unnerving dissonance, as well as his incorporation of American hymns, patriotic songs, and folk music.

To me, Ives' music seems to shift between the internal to the external — from complex inner solitary thoughts of a wandering mind, to an outside world full of various types of music — at times celebratory or heroic or mournful — that sometimes interrupt these inner ponderings with contradictory expressions, and sometimes just as suddenly suppressed with the mind's angry response. "Beauty in music," Charles Ives is famous for noting, "is too often confused with something that lets the ear lie back in an easy chair."

Of the four compositions on this CD, perhaps the most comprehensible (and the longest at 24 minutes) is the Sonata No. 3 (completed in 1914). The long 1st movement is often very hymn-like, meandering through a landscape both strange and familiar. The 2nd movement is one of the bounciest, jazziest things Ives wrote, and the 3rd movement really soars and sings.

But there are treasures to be found throughout the other three sonatas as well. In the Sonata No. 1 I love the haunting central Largo, and the 3rd movement appearance of "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night" that forms an important structural role in the 1st movement of Ives' Symphony No. 4.

The Sonata No. 2 (perhaps finished around 1910) has a beautiful miniature of a 1st movement (titled "Autumn"), and the 2nd movement ("In the Barn") incorporates fiddle-dance tunes with a finale that tries playing the famous Civil War song "Battle Cry of Freedom," but gets stuck in a nasty loop, and then tosses everything up in the air in frustration. The 3rd movement ("The Revival") starts out slow, but surges in triumph with some phrases that sound like Stravinsky to me, before a disturbing abrupt ending.

The Sonata No. 4 is subtitled "Children's Day at the Camp Meeting." It dates from about 1916 and was written for Ives' young nephew. Consequently this is more accessible and tuneful than the others, and ends with the appearance of "Shall We Gather at the River?"

Hilary Hahn wasn't yet born during the Ives centennial celebrations in 1974, after which it seemed that the music of Charles Ives went into a sort of post-party hibernation. Perhaps the centennial excitement just couldn't be maintained permanently, but it's great to see younger performers again take up this often difficult music with enthusiasm and triumph.