Monday, November 5, 2018

Where’s the Bach?

Violinist Hilary Hahn (from the San Francisco Symphony event page)

Yesterday evening at Davies Symphony Hall, the Great Performers Series, presented by the San Francisco Symphony to host visiting talent, continued with a solo recital by violinist Hilary Hahn. As is frequently the case for unaccompanied violin recitals, the program consisted entirely of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. As is well known, Bach composed six major works for unaccompanied violin, three sonatas (BWV 1001 in G minor, BWV 1003 in A minor, and BWV 1005 in C major) and three partitas (BWV 1002 in B minor, BWV 1004 in D minor, and BWV 1006 in E major). Hahn’s program consisted of half of this collection: BWV 1001, BWV 1002, and BWV 1004. Because BWV 1004 is distinguished by a lengthy chaconne as its final movement, it was preceded by the intermission break.

The evening was not a particularly satisfying one. There is no questioning Hahn’s technical skills in the way she handles her instrument; but, as this site has frequently observed, the proper execution of Bach’s music (at least in Bach’s own opinion) involves far more than letter-perfect fidelity to the marks on paper that constitute the “text.” The performer must present the music not only through clarity of execution but also with an imaginative account of the “inventiones” (ideas) that may reside, not only in that “text” but also in how the “text” is interpreted.

The sense that Hahn’s capacity for “inventiones” was lacking may have been due in part to still-vivid memories of Igor Levit’s solo piano recital, which took place this past Thursday in Herbst Theatre. Levit began with that chaconne that concludes BWV 1004 but in an arrangement by Johannes Brahms to be played by the left hand alone. This turned out to be one of the most memorable events of the season (at least to date). Not only did the performance provide a clear account of how much Brahms understood about Bach, but also it was just as clear in disclosing how much Levit understood about how much Brahms understood Bach.

It was that capacity for understanding that was consistently lacking throughout Hahn’s executions of Bach’s music. Thus, there was little, if any, effort devoted to reflecting the dance qualities of the partita movements. (Even the chaconne had roots in a dance form.) This was particularly problematic in BWV 1002 in which the dance form behind each movement is followed by a “double,” a faster-paced variation of the source that tends to involve roughly twice as many notes. The overall plan is thus that each movement begins by “saying” to the listener, “Here is a dance.” That “utterance” is then followed by, “Here are some instrumental ‘inventions’ arising from the music for that dance.” This gives a whole partita an overall plan of delightful back-and-forth exchanges, none of which were evident in how Hahn worked her way through the four movements.

The other virtue of Bach’s music that seems to have eluded Hahn’s approaches to execution is the way, even when writing for a solo instrument, Bach was always creating polyphony. It was the disclosure of that polyphony in the BWV 1004 chaconne that made Brahms’ arrangement so ingenious and Levit’s account of Brahms so riveting. That sense of polyphony can only emerge from a judicious understanding not only of the notes themselves but also of how any individual note relates to all the other notes. The music is not just an elaborate texture of multiple voices emerging from a single instrument; it is also a complex web of interrelationships, all of which join forces to establish a characteristic “personality” arising from the music.

Behind those scare quotes we find the real rub behind last night performance. Hahn was so focused on precision in execution that no room was left for any personal qualities to peek through the flood of notes. On those occasions when they did emerge, they tended to involve ventures into extreme dynamic levels (particularly on the soft side) or phrasings that had little (if anything) to do with either deep or surface structure. These movements could be striking; but they did little to establish a sense of character in the music,  whether the persona behind that character was Bach’s, Brahms’, or (the best of all options) that of Hahn herself. Instead, the listener was confronted with a dispassionately analytic account, which could be admired (at great length) for an abundance of technical skills but which never gave the sense of the overall recital being a memorable journey of discovery.

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