Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn © Radio France  /  Lucie Bombled

Interview - Hilary Hahn and Bach: a lifelong passion

A champion of contemporary music, the American violinist has not forgotten her first love: Bach. Artist-in-residence at Radio France for the 2018/19 season, Hahn spoke to France Musique about recording Bach and how her approach to his sonatas and partitas has evolved since her teens.

Hilary Hahn plays Bach. The title of the American violinist's latest album, but also a truth in itself, one that has held since Hilary Hahn's first recording of the sonatas and partitas at the age of 16. Twenty-one years later, in 2018, Hahn has returned yet again to this eternal music, bringing with her a wealth of experience and new insights. France Musique wanted to know more...

How has your interpretation of Bach changed since your first recording at the age  of 16?

I think it’s deceptive. You feel like you’ve changed as a person, as an artist, but you still are the same person, the same artist. When I listen to my oldest recordings - this is a closing of a circle from my first one - I find myself surprised by some things that I did. I don’t remember playing something a certain way, but there it is on the recording so obviously I did it. And other things I would do exactly the same today.  It’s a combination, and every day might be different. I think I play as differently from one concert to another as I do one year to another.  

Do you notice a difference when recording the sonatas and partitas in a studio compared to performing them live?

In a recording session you get to do it again and again and again if you want, if there’s time. I don’t think about perfection - I just think about getting the music across. A concert goes by too fast for me to think about perfection. You have to work on that before you get into the situation so you can just dive into the music and let the tempi and everything enhance the music rather than be a source of stress.

Bach is very challenging to play and musically demanding to make clear. I think there are so many ways to make it work so that’s why a lot of different artists have completely opposite tempi, opposite approaches to polyphony and the multiple voices phrasing, to vibrato - all of them work in their own way. There are just so many possibilities that there’s room for a lot of different styles. 

I think the biggest difference between a recording and a performance is that I have to play a little differently for the mics in order for it to sound the way it would in a hall from a distance. In a hall when I’m playing a concert, there are no mics up close, so I really have to project and exaggerate. Under the microphones, I almost can’t go quiet enough. You can’t disappear under the microphones because they’re right in front of you. That changes the whole balance of an interpretation. 

Was recording another album of Bach solo repertoire an emotional process for you? What was going through your mind at the time?

It was somewhat emotional. It was also intimidating because I had recorded an album before that people liked that was the same repertoire but not exactly the same pieces. I wanted to measure up to expectations, but in a way that’s not possible, so I had to just put that thought out of my mind and realise that the best way to be authentic is to just do what’s truest to what I’m feeling and what I’m hearing and what I’m interpreting at that time - to capture that the best I can, and remember that all other concerns are superfluous.

You mentioned the variety of interpretations that already exist today...who are your references when it comes to Bach?

There are so many great recordings out there and so many different styles. I grew up listening to Grumiaux and Milstein and Szeryng, so those were my role models for Bach. Once you get a certain sound in your head, it’s hard to shake it, so that continues to be the set that I return to over and over again. I do however listen to contemporary recordings - Julia Fischer has a very good set that I enjoy listening to; anything in the Baroque period-performance style I find really fascinating. I’ve never experimented with a Baroque instrument or bow but I really enjoy listening to the musical ideas and seeing what I can take from the tempi. 

I think the biggest difference between how I played as a teenager and now, especially in the Baroque and Classical repertoire, is just tempi, because in the old-school way of playing, tempi are very slow. When you hear the classic recordings like Oistrakh it’s very, very slow tempi. But contemporary period-performance style recordings are much faster. I really like that sense of motion, so I think I combine both of those schools with my own choices. 

Bach is often performed as an encore. How do you see this tradition? 

I released a project called 27 pieces - the Hilary Hahn Encores. It was a set of commissioned encores to update the encore genre: the bis, because at that time there were all of these classic encores being recorded but there wasn’t really a chance for composers to redefine the genre. It wasn’t being commissioned or performed.

One of the composers with whom I worked on that project was a Spanish composer in his eighties, Antón García Abril. I noticed in his music a great understanding of polyphony. He had sent me a set of three pieces and I was supposed to choose one for the encore project. One of them was a solo piece and I felt it would be such a shame if it was not developed further. So I kept asking him if he would write something for me… and the result is amazing: six single-movement partitas for polyphonic violin. It's great to update this genre for the present day: it’s music different to anything else that exists for solo violin.

What are the particular challenges for you when performing Bach's Chaconne?

_The Chaconne is a very, very long piece for a performer. When you’re listening to it, you get drawn in but when you’re playing it you have to structure it, you have to think about the big picture and the small picture at the same time. It’s basically a theme and variations, but the theme is a chord progression, and variations are anything within that chord progression. So people aren’t listening and thinking "Here’s the set of chords, and here’s the set of chords again, and oh! here’s the chords again". It’s a linear work and yet it has this common thread throughout, very subliminal for the listener. _

_When I learned it, I didn’t really know how to structure it. A few years later, having performed it regularly, I had an "A-ha!" moment where everything just clicked. I suddenly understood what the piece was. I couldn’t describe it; you know where everything is supposed to be. You rearrange it and everything is clear. I had that experience on stage! That experience has stayed with me, and the piece draws me in as I play it, as well as drawing in the audience. _

Would you say Bach is a rite of passage for any young musician? What are your memories of performing Bach for the first time?

I don’t know if Bach is a rite of passage for everyone, but for violinists the solo Bach repertoire is something that, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying, everyone learns. It’s an essential part of the repertoire for professional violinists but also for students. A lot of teachers teach it, partly because it has very specific technical challenges that you don’t find in other works. So teachers figure, if you’re not getting the musical benefit at least you’ll get the technical benefit! 

_However, the musical side is so important for a student to work on, and you definitely feel like you cannot master it at first - you just can’t get everything to happen at once. So it becomes an almost lifelong quest to delve deeper, and do better, and play it better, and make a better interpretation, and become more ‘one’ with the music. _

You regularly perform Bach's music for newborns and their parents...how do babies react to his music?

_I have a photo from one of the baby concerts where I’m playing, and most of the babies are quiet and calm. There are inevitably two or three crying babies, and that’s fine, I don’t mind...I do the concerts for the parents mostly. But one baby was fascinated! He crawled to the front-most cushion and watched me play, on his stomach with his head raised, and I could see his face out of the corner of my eye. He just stayed there for 20 minutes, and I thought to myself, "_maybe that’s a future musician!"

Interview by Mélissa Lesnie

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