Why did violinist Hilary Hahn wait more than 20 years to complete her recordings of J.S. Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin?
“I always liked having the rest of the Bachs ahead of me,” Hilary said, speaking with me over the phone last month between her travels. “Once you’ve recorded it, all you can do in the future, as far as recording projects, is re-record it!”
Hilary Hahn. Photo by Dana van Leeuwen for Decca.
It’s no stretch to state that Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas are some of the most beloved and revered works in the violin repertoire. Written some 300 years ago, they have captured the imagination of violinists literally for centuries. The cycle — written for violin with no accompaniment — includes three Sonatas, each with four movements and each including a fugue – yes, three-voice fugues, written to be played by just one human on one violin. Alternating between the Sonatas are three Partitas with multiple movements based on various dances. It is an epic cycle, including a total of 28 movements.
Because the Bach S & Ps are solo works that don’t require the logistics of a collaboration, Hilary said that “I didn’t feel like I had to seize the moment to record them; I could just wait until it was the right time.”
Fortunately for those who have been waiting — the right time is now. Today Hilary releases her album entitled Hilary Hahn Plays Bach, featuring the first three of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas: Sonata No. 1 in G minor; Partita No. 1 in B minor; and Sonata No. 2 in A minor.
Her recording of the other three came out in 1997, on her very first album, also called Hilary Hahn Plays Bach, recorded when she was 16 and 17 years old. That one included the Partita No. 2 in D minor; Sonata No. 3 in C major and Partita No. 3 in E major.
By now, Hilary has recorded 19 albums, won three Grammys and has persisted in a top-flight solo career that has spanned nearly three decades. Earlier this year she released an album called Retrospective, featuring highlights from those recordings as well as live performances and art from her fans. Lately she has been posting short practice videos to her Instagram (violincase) under #100DaysOfPractice, and last spring she gave birth to her second child, Nadia. Her other daughter, Zelda, is three.
When it came to completing the solo Bach, Hilary first set a deadline based on her age: She would record the rest when she reached twice the age as she was for the first recording. “Then I got to age 32 and realized, I’m already twice the age! I guess I should start thinking about this, if I’m going to be age-related about it.” Hilary, who is now 38, actually did record them around that time, and then she couldn’t bring herself to listen to what she’d recorded. “I kept putting it off, I don’t really know why. I think maybe it just wasn’t quite the right time,” she said. “Then I realized that a few years had passed since I did that series of sessions, and I thought, where does the time go? I should probably do something with that.”
“I thought I might enjoy the opportunity to re-record something — before it ever came out,” she said. So she booked another recording session in the same hall, and with that on the calendar, she finally opened the older files. She kept her date, and she re-recorded the whole thing. “I tried it again, and I picked and chose which pieces to keep from the old and which from the new sessions.”
“So I recorded the whole album on two different violins, over two sets of sessions, with different bows, and with a four- or five-year gap in between,” Hilary said. “I didn’t keep track of which was from the old sessions; the majority are from the newer sessions.” For her, it was a matter of one session being better or worse, it was more a matter of different versions, different approaches, and “which version is resonating with me right now.”
Wait a minute, two different violins? Since when?
“I have two Vuillaumes,” Hilary explained. The first is the 1864 Vuillaume that she has had for most of her career, with which she has recorded most of her albums. She still has that fiddle, but “a few years ago I got another one, an 1865 Strad model. I found it really helpful to have something that felt very familiar but was a little different.” When it came to the 1864 Vuillaume, “I’ve played on that instrument for so long, through so many aspects of my technique changing and so many life events — everything that I ever did while I was working with that violin was connected with that violin for me.” That can be enriching, but it can also feel like baggage. “I did have a period of time where I was injured, and I did not want to switch an instrument at that point,” she said. Then after resolving the injury, “I started back on the 1864 Vuillaume. I had taken a break and I’d really re-exammined my technique, and I noticed in that time that I just felt like that violin brought a lot with it, when I would open the case to practice.” Out of curiosity, she pulled out the 1865 Vuillaume, an instrument that she had not finished adjusting to. “I hadn’t quite figured out how I related to it. And all of a sudden if felt so much easier to play,” she said. It was like a fresh start. “It felt like a weight was lifted, it felt like I was a lot freer and could express myself better.”
“I don’t necessarily think it was the violin in particular, I think it was a combination of things,” she said. “First, I was ready to play on that violin. Also, it was still a Vuillaume, and with certain kinds of Vuillaumes, you can switch between them and it doesn’t feel jarring at all. These two are very compatible, even though they are different dimensions,” she said. She thought she might just use the “new” instrument for a tour or two, “and then I just kind of stuck with that instrument. So that is the one that I play for the most part now, the 1865 Strad model.” She also uses a gold-mounted Tubbs bow.
“For me, this recording is sort of an arc,” Hilary said. “When I first recorded the first album, I was in a different place in my life: I was still a student, and I was still getting used to the recording process.” It was her first commercial recording and first studio recording; done at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall — a big hall on top of a savings bank in Troy, New York. The studio was not especially sound-insulated from the street, so they recorded after banking hours, to avoid getting too much street noise. “We recorded overnight, so that was kind of fun,” Hilary said. “It was very memorable.”
For this recording, Hilary had much more ownership over the process. “I now know how to produce a record: I’m co-producer on the album, making executive decisions about when and where we’re going to record it, listening to the takes myself.” Both takes for this album were recorded at the Sosnoff Theater at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. “Recording it twice gave me even more a feeling of connection to the project. I was making a lot of artistic decisions all along the way and experimenting. Whereas I normally see a recording as a portrait of that particular day, I see this one as a representation of where I’ve arrived after this time with Bach, and also the changeability of an interpretation. In the end, no matter how many years you spend on a project, it really is about that moment you’re in front of the microphone, what wants to happen at that time.”
Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas have been studied, performed and recorded by so many violinists over such a long period of time, there is a great range of interpretations, from the Romantic-leaning artists of the early 20th century, with their vibrato, glissandi and slower tempi; to the sprightly and ornamental style of the more recent period performance specialists, playing with Baroque bows and gut strings. Where do Hilary’s Bach interpretations lay on such a spectrum?
“I was taught Bach, and taught to listen to Bach, by a very specific generation,” she said. Her teachers Klara Berkovich and Jascha Brodsky “were coming from the tradition of Kreisler, Heifetz, Milstein, Szeryng, Grumiaux, Oistrakh. It’s a very specific way of playing Bach that is not a ‘Baroque’ style of playing Bach at all,” Hilary said. “That is what is in my ear, it is natural to me physically, and it is how I can express myself most completely in the music. So I don’t feel the need to change the essence of it, but there are a lot of different avenues for exploration within even that particular style.”
That said, Hilary has done a lot of listening, researching and experimenting. “I like a lot of the tempi and the mobility of the Baroque interpretations and the performance practice style, and so I try to incorporate that into my own playing, where it feels natural.”
But to actually start playing with a Baroque bow and in a “period” style would be a whole different matter. “It’s one of those things that I would want to seriously study if I were to do it,” Hilary said. “I would want to make sure that I’d done my research, that I wasn’t just kind of doing it, just to do it.”
When it comes to Bach, sometimes people feel constrained by the perception that there is “right” way to do it.
“That’s a hard thing to have in your head, and I don’t think it helps,” Hilary said. “You’re going to do it they way you’re going to do it. I’ve had that feeling about certain repertoire, and I know it’s not a good feeling, and I think it helps to own the way you’re playing it: ‘This is how I’m doing it, I might do it differently another time, but today this is where it wants to be, so this is what I’m going to go with.’ And it doesn’t work for the audience, if you are doing something that you don’t feel convinced of yourself.”
“I had a very interesting discussion with Andrew Manze. I was playing some Baroque repertoire, and I called him because I liked his recordings,” Hilary said. “I told him, ‘I just don’t know what to do about ornamentation because I don’t know how to interpret the treatises I’ve been trying to read…’” His advice? Do what you feel is right. That will sound more “right” than trying to do it a certain way because it’s supposed to be that way.
“I think that’s good advice in general,” Hilary said. “Of course you should do your research. You have to be convinced of it yourself and have the confidence in yourself to pull off the musical side of it. There is a certain element of flair in music, and if you don’t feel connected to it, you’re not going to have that confidence and that flair.
“I think what doesn’t work is to box yourself in to what you ‘should’ be doing in that moment,” Hilary said. “It’s very easy to tell when someone isn’t comfortable when they’re playing Bach.” For example, when choosing how fast to play a movement, “I think the primary consideration should be, does it feel like a natural pace, does it feel comfortable, is it suiting the music, what am I conveying when I play this tempo?”
One example of a Partita that requires some analysis and decision-making is Partita No. 1 in B minor. The Partita has four dance movements, but each movement has a “Double.” What does that mean? There has been much debate — is it supposed to be played at literally double the tempo? Could be. “But I think it could be related in many different ways as well,” Hilary said. “I’m sure that there are people who would say that it should be the same tempo. Honestly, I’ve tried to stick with some kind of tempo relationship, but in concert, it just kind of takes on a life of its own. So instead of forcing it to be a certain way, I practice it to find the connection — but I practice different kinds of connections, not just the tempo. I look for connections in the phrasing and for connections in the concept. I envision, what is the physical movement of these notes, how do they relate in the two parts, and how can I keep that train of thought, despite a change of tempo, a change of structure and pacing?”
If you want that strict mathematical tempo relationship, “you really can’t control the performance to that extent, you’ll just wind up tangling up, I think,” Hilary said. “That’s what happens to me!”
What? No way.
“No, Bach is tricky repertoire!” she said. “Weird things happen.”
With this enormous project finally completed, Hilary not about to put Bach on a shelf. In fact her 2018-2019 performance season puts a major emphasis on the music of Bach, with upcoming all-Bach solo recitals all over the world, as well as performances of Bach concertos with orchestra. (Just last week in Los Angeles, I heard her play Bach with the LA Chamber Orchestra, performing works from another of her early albums, of Bach Concertos, which she recorded with that very orchestra.)
“I could just keep working on this project every day, keep delving into it,” Hilary said of the Sonatas and Partitas. “For me, there seem to be endless possibilities in this music. I don’t know how it’s possible, there aren’t that many notes in these pieces! If you did some sort of mathematical equation, you’d think that eventually you would run out of combinations of dynamics and tempo and notes. But even in the shortest, fastest, non-double-stoppy movement — when I play it in a concert, I still have drastically new and different ideas, and those ideas occur to me in the spur of the moment.”
“There is something about this music that just lends itself to constant interpretive tinkering,” Hilary said. “There’s so much in the polyphony; so much dissonance-resolution, so much drama in it, even where it seems very straightforward. There are so many ways to pull that around, to rebuild that architecture. That sounds really academic, but it’s not; it’s an instinctive, creative process. You can keep working on these works for a long time; you can completely re-vamp your style within the works and remain yourself as an artist and live with them in a way that they reflect who you are at that particular time.”
“And it’s amazing, wherever I am, Bach always seems to change the room,” Hilary said. “Whether I’m playing to a group of people who are knitting or parents with their babies, or whether it’s in an alternative venue or in a concert hall — people change how they are paying attention. You can almost get lost in the music just by sitting there, passively. You don’t have to go to the music, the music comes to you — but then it takes you somewhere else with it. It’s a beautiful thing. When I’m performing, I can feel that happening. I can tell that everyone is together in this space that is created by the music – it’s not created by the hall – because it happens anywhere. You spin into a whole connected world with everyone who is in the same room.”