Hilary Hahn, 21 Years Older, Brings back Bach. And Perhaps Wiser

ByQuyen Anne

Aug 23, 2023

The violinist Hilary Hahn has come back to Bach for her latest album, two decades after she made her recording debut with his solo works.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A lot changes in two decades. A lot also stays the same.

Take “Hilary Hahn Plays Bach,” the violinist’s audacious 1997 debut recording, released when she was just 17. The photo on the cover shows her with soft, youthful features but the solemn stare of a serious artist. No mere prodigy, she was declaring that she was ready to leave her mark on some of the most challenging and profound music in her instrument’s repertory.

Fast-forward to the present, and the release of her long-awaited follow-up, “Hilary Hahn Plays Bach: Sonatas 1 & 2, Partita 1,” which closes the circle on Bach’s solo works and will be accompanied by a virtually sold-out tour that includes a stop at Lincoln Center on Oct. 23.

Ms. Hahn’s Bach is as earnest as ever, yet naturally wiser. Between the recordings, she has become one of the essential violinists of our time, a restlessly curious artist eager to commission contemporary composers and push the boundaries of performance.

And on the cover of the new album, in contrast to the last, she’s smiling. That may well be the more accurate portrayal, based on a visit to her Cambridge home, where she has lived for the past two years with her husband and two daughters. Here she practices, unglamorously, in a corner of the basement that also houses her Grammys, still not unpacked.

On a recent morning, Ms. Hahn graciously played host while discussing her life and approach to performance, nursing the infant Nadia and indulging the imaginary tasting menu prepared by three-year-old Zelda, a precocious child with a multilingual library, perfect pitch and the youthful confidence to serve, with a straight face, a dish she called “cookie water.”

For someone who made her professional debut as a child and has been touring and recording ever since, Ms. Hahn seemed surprisingly well adjusted, with a conventional home life that didn’t fit the profile of a superstar virtuoso with a massive, dedicated fan base.


Credit…Steve Hahn

The reason, she said, could be that she has long aimed to prioritize her individuality over the grueling demands of concertizing. As a student at the Curtis Institute of Music — where her teachers included the great Jascha Brodsky, who died in 1997 — she was focused and skilled. But when her career blossomed, she resisted any persona prescribed to her.

“When I was starting out with record companies, there was a tendency to simplify the image as a prodigy,” she said. “I have more than one adjective, and I’ve always tried to be myself and listen to my instincts.”

So Ms. Hahn became a self-guided globe-trotter, traveling for a time with a pet mouse she carried in the pocket of her cargo pants. She recorded the standard repertory — Sibelius and Tchaikovsky — as well as more out-of-the-way 20th-century works by Barber, Schoenberg and Bernstein, all with musicality beyond her years.

A young Ms. Hahn with her teacher Jascha Brodsky, who died in 1997.
Credit…Hilary Hahn

Composers wrote specifically for her, including Jennifer Higdon, whose Violin Concerto, made for Ms. Hahn, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. And she reached beyond the classical world for collaborators including the mandolin player Chris Thile, the folk singer Josh Ritter and Valgeir Sigurdsson, who produced an adventurous album of her in improvised music, “Silfra.”


Not one to preen, Ms. Hahn didn’t record an early album of encores, as many young musicians do. When she did turn to encores, in 2013, it was a collection of 27 new pieces written by some of the leading composers of the day. One of them, Du Yun, remarked that this record was the hallmark of a truly mature artist.

“It’s easy to be a prodigy,” she said. “It’s really hard to keep pushing in new directions.”

Ms. Hahn commissioned 26 of the encores, and held a contest to select the 27th. The album release, a building-scale performance installation, was more akin to “Sleep No More” than an average recital. Early next year, Boosey & Hawkes will release a two-volume edition of the pieces, with Ms. Hahn’s bowings, markings and in-depth notes about her experiences working with each composer.

“She’s not just a world-class violinist,” Ms. Du said. “She has this idea and sees it through and fund-raises and talks to a record label and publisher. And then she thinks about how to talk about those pieces in different concert settings and online. That’s a whole package of what an artist in today’s time should be.”

Ms. Hahn has also known when to take a break; she decided long ago that every 10 years she would go on sabbatical. During these periods off, she has taken language immersion courses and studied ceramics and welding. When she was 30, she briefly stopped playing and listening to the radio. (It was during this time that she met her husband.)

She has played from Bach’s six sonatas and partitas more or less every day since she was 9; movements from these works make for crowd-pleasing encores and warm-ups in practice. Her Bach has preternatural clarity: Four-note chords and fugues sound as though they were played by a small ensemble, not by a single instrument articulating discrete voices.

“When you hear her play,” said Mr. Thile, who once tried emulating her hands, “you’re hearing the music as clearly as you will ever hear it.”

The differences between her Bach albums are subtle. The technique is superb in both, but the 1997 recording is slightly more exuberant, while the new one is capacious in its phrasing.

“This is a portrait of how I play Bach in my 30s,” Ms. Hahn said of her new album. “When I play those earlier pieces now, the tempi are faster, but the structure within the phrase is more stretched. It’s a little bit more of a push and pull.”


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Her work has of late had to be incorporated ever more into the rhythms of everyday life. “I was trying to not practice when Zelda napped, trying to compartmentalize, but I wound up just not getting done what I needed to,” Ms. Hahn said. “So I threw caution to the wind. If I have five minutes, let’s practice. If it becomes half an hour, great.”

On a white-water rafting trip, she gave an impromptu Bach performance to a father and son, who listened through headphones while she played an electric violin. She has organized B.Y.O.B. — bring your own baby, that is — concerts for parents who otherwise might not be able to take their children to hear music in traditional settings.

Credit…Carlin Ma/Seattle Symphony
One of Ms. Hahn’s baby-friendly concerts, in Seattle.

“I find that Bach is appealing to a lot of different audiences,” she said. “It really hits people at their core in different ways, but it also creates a meditative space. I just feel like I can play it, and it reaches people.”

Next year, Ms. Hahn will turn 40 — which means that after this season, it will be time for another sabbatical. She doesn’t have any plans yet, and doesn’t want to make any.

“Maybe I’ll go on safari for a month,” she said, “or go to an artist residency to write for a couple of weeks, or go to Walden Pond every day.”

Or, gesturing to Nadia, playing on the floor, she said, “I could just do the mom thing.”

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