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Hilary Hahn's Bach

Hilary Hahn
Dana van Leeuwen
Hilary Hahn

In a conversation with host Brian McCreath on The Bach Hour, Hahn describes the endless creative possibilities in the composer's music for solo violin and plays the Sonata No. 2.

On the program:

Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, BWV 1068: I. Overture (arr. Crespo) - German Brass

Cantata BWV 98 Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (translation) - Sophie Karthauser, soprano; Petra Noskaiova, alto; Christoph Genz, tenor; Dominik Woerner, bass-baritone; La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken, director

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, BWV 1116 - Gerhard Weinberger, organ (Heinrich Gottfried Trost organ, St. Walpurgis, Grossengottern, Germany)

Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 - Hilary Hahn, violin

To hear Hilary Hahn's conversation about performing and recording Bach's solo violin music with WCRB's Brian McCreath, use the player above.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at WCRB. I'm with Hilary Hahn, the violinist, and she has just released a new recording of solo violin works by Bach. They include the Partita Number 1 and the Sonatas Numbers 1 and 2. Hilary, thanks so much for taking a few minutes to talk with me about it today.

Hilary Hahn Sure. Thank you.

Brian McCreath I'm not a violinist. And so, you know, I'm familiar, of course, with these six solo violin pieces in all and the three that you've released on this recording. But I guess I've always wondered from a violinist's perspective how different they each are from each other, especially in terms of what they ask of you, sort of what the challeng is for you. Do they all sort of sort themselves out according to different personalities? Or are they sort of all one group and you're just kind of moving from one to the other? How do they hit you?

Hilary Hahn I've been living with these pieces for a really long time, and they've meant different things to me over the years. And they've taught me different things over the years. So for me, these days, they're very comfortable places to be. And not in a sort of lazy way, but it is very familiar. So I played my first piece of solo Bach when I was nine, and there are six pieces. And that's a lot, but it's not an endless amount. So I find myself cycling through pretty regularly and returning to them over and over again. And I think when you have a lot of time with a piece, and then you have a break from it and you go back to it and then you have another break and you go back to it, every time you go back to it, you reestablish that connection, but you also cement it further and you have new ideas. And every time you have those new ideas, you add to your repertoire of ideas for that piece.

So, at this point, I feel like I've done a lot of different things with each piece from the set of six. And therefore I feel like it's a very natural place for me to exist in. When I'm playing them, I toy around with them on stage. I'll try things out that I've never done before, and I'll just push the limits. You know, the other day I was playing one of the fastest movements in the set, and it just felt like that was the right piece to play for an encore. So I took off at the fastest tempo I could because I just figured, well, it's relatively short and it's very fast, so let's see if I can do it. And it was on stage, and I made it, you know, but barely. And it's fun to have that comfort level with a whole group of pieces to the point where you can just challenge yourself within them when you're the only person playing it. It's like, you know, giving yourself a dare, you know?

In a way, you can do that with all sorts of things in these pieces. You can do that with a certain kind of phrasing, or with a certain kind of emotion that you want to try to bring across to the extreme, or with the opposite of emotion. You know, you can go very analytical and pull it back a bit at times and then really dive in again, full steam ahead. So, it's nice to have that comfort level with these pieces, but I think, on a musical and emotional level, they are really amazing. They offer almost limitless opportunities for expression and connection with the audience. And they are so interesting structurally that there's never any lack of paths to pursue within the music, if you're curious to follow them.

Brian McCreath Well, and as you talk about the comfort level of it, I guess what occurs to me is that that also makes it possible for ideas to come from other pieces of music. I've always wondered with solo pieces by Bach, whether they're for violin or cello or, you know, harpsichord, piano, whatever, how much do other pieces by Bach inform ideas that you might have? I mean, his catalog is so gigantic that I can imagine you still might run into a piece, whether it's a cantata or some other piece, that you really didn't know before. But then you kind of find a connection between that and some of these solo violin works. I don't know. Does that ever happen with you?

Hilary Hahn In a way, but much as I've played other pieces of his, I've done the Brandenburg Concerti, I've done the cantatas, I've done the concerti, and so that's two double concertos and two solo concertos, and I've played individual movements of the keyboard and violin sonatas in addition to one of the full pieces. I always find that there's something very different about the solo, polyphonic works. Somehow being one voice in the whole piece, which is the case with all the other works, when I work with other people on a Bach piece, I'm one of the voices and not everything, in a way it translates, but I think what translates is more that the stuff I learned in the polyphonic works translates into how I play my individual line within the ensemble.

And I think the language is quite different, actually, from a Bach concerto to one of these fugues, for example. It's just a very different way of organizing the music, and part of that could be practical. I mean, how do you make it work on one instrument with four strings and one bow? You know, versus a number of different instruments that all have full range possibilities in every voice and different tonal things that they bring to the ensemble, different personalities of people interacting? He was a very smart composer, so I think he probably enjoyed the puzzle of writing as much as possible into one instrument. But he also knew what would work for the different kinds of instrumentation he was working with.

Brian McCreath And when you talk about Bach himself, I mean, you mentioned the kind of composer he he was, do you ever kind of catch yourself wondering about him more as a person? I mean, I don't know how much that would even filter into what you would do in these solo violin works, whether that would kind of make any difference at all. I imagine for some people it would and others it wouldn't. But what do you feel like you're finding out about him as a person when you're considering all these options, when you're looking at those other pieces and when you're considering the difference in language that you're describing between the ensemble pieces and the solo pieces?

Hilary Hahn The information I've come across about him as a person to me seems very flat. I can't really imagine him as the person because the music says one thing. And then he had a gazillion kids, and he wrote so much music, and he had these church and court connections. And he was an organist. I mean, in a way, it's too much information to reconcile. It feels like it points me in so many different directions, I can't figure out who he was when he was writing this piece versus who he was when he was writing that, and who was he in his jobs, and, you know, what was he like when he showed up at work? Did he, you know, practice a lot, or did he just kind of wing it? I don't know. You know, did he powder his wag himself? What kind of wig? Where did he get it? I don't know. So, you know, there are all these things you could go into if you're trying to understand someone's life. But even for contemporary composers, I don't feel like we know very much about them. And I think what we try to read into someone through their music or through their writing about the music may not be actually what the full truth is.

You know, when people write about their work, they rarely even know how it came about. They just have to write something. And so they write to the best of their knowledge, what led them to do that thing? But who really knows for sure? So, I try not to make too many assumptions based on his music or based on the biographical facts that I do know. But I think his mind had to be really incredible to do what he did with the music that he wrote.

He wrote such variety for so many instruments, and it was such a different time from what we're in now. Yet the complexity of the pieces I know the best, which are these solo works, their complexity and their use of dissonance and resolution as a dramatic structure and a storytelling structure is really progressive. I don't actually see that even in contemporary music very much. So, I don't know where he was getting it, or where he was going with it, or how he was compelled to do it, or anything. But I just know that that really is engrossing and it draws everyone in. I think that's why this music really works in so many different circumstances, because he created this drama. It's just embedded in the music and even though it sounds like baroque music, on the one hand, it really has all the grit and tension of more recent eras that were much more open about the struggle that they're trying to convey through music.

Brian McCreath Well, that's fantastic, that's great. Well, Hilary Hahn, thanks so much for your time today, and we'll really enjoy the new recording.

Hilary Hahn Thank you so much.