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Daily album review 24: Violinist Hilary Hahn's 27 encores a tribute to magnetic diversity

By John Terauds on November 28, 2013

Hilary Hahn and Cory Smythe (Robert Torres photo).
Hilary Hahn and Cory Smythe (Robert Torres photo).

One of the season’s stunners has been seeing In 27 Pieces, Hilary Hahn’s Deutsche Grammophon album of violin encores rise to the top of classical sales charts. With new music. Really?

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

This is so because this album is magnetic — in Hahn’s playing as well as in the diversity of excellent pieces written for her.

hahnThe Virginia native, who turned 34 yesterday, sat down one day and realised that the art of the encore was stuck largely in the 19th century.

She wondered what that celebratory flourish at the end of a great recital might sound like on 21st century terms, and decided to find out the answer by commissioning 26 composers to write something less than 5 minutes long for violin and piano.

Hahn describes the process in the booklet that comes with this two-CD set. She researched composers and their approaches first, looking for music that would grab her soul.

Then, once the commission was done, she had to discover how to learn and then make sense of the music in order to help it connect with a listener.

Hahn writes:

Every one of these encores was fresh, free of interpretive tradition, and each spoke a different language. My initial process was full of trial and error. I broke down techniques and phrases until I understood them on the most fundamental levels. Often, I was pushed well past my limits. As the music came into its own, however, the piece metamorphosed into brilliant, powerful, scintillating, beautiful works of art. They compelled me to discover new layers of expression.

Every bit of that intense focus and enthusiasm — coupled with Hahn’s remarkable technique — come through in the 27 pieces here (the last was chosen via a special contest at the end of Hahn’s process).

The collection comes from a who’s who of contemporary composers — including Torontonian Christos Hatzis, whose Coming To opens the second CD.

Encores are not meant to be deep or architecturally complex. Rather, they are meant to convey mood or an image while allowing the soloist to either show off one more time, or to show a more intimate side of their musical personality.

Each piece is different, yet they all reflect Hahn’s personality because she chose their creators. What I hear reflected is a desire to communicate rather than a desire to showcase technique. Our only response can be to sit back and want to listen to many of these pieces over and over again.

It helps that Hahn has found a golden partner in pianist Cory Smythe, who is never far away with a bit of extra sparkle from his grand piano.

My great hope, in this post-atonal world, is that great artists like Hahn and Smythe will help shatter long-held fears people have about finding enjoyment in new music.

That would be the start of a true revolution, not just a passing fancy.

I feel like I need to express preference for a favourite piece or two. I can’t, because every time I’ve listened to these discs, something new has caught my attention. Today? It’s Aalap and Tarana, a mesmerising dialogue between violin and piano by Kala Ramnath, an Indian classical violinist.

You can find more album details here.

Here is the unusually thorough promotional video for the album:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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