Album Review: Hilary Hahn plays Bach: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2; Partita No. 1

Music | Album Review: Hilary Hahn plays Bach: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2; Partita No. 1
From the album cover, Hilary Hahn Plays Bach – Sonatas 1 & 2, Partita 1; Photo: Dana van Leeuwan

“What most surprised me about Ms. Hahn’s take on Bach—she performed the first sonata and the first two partitas—was its throwback glamour.” —Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

The common sentiment amongst musicians about Johannes Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin is that you could spend a lifetime figuring out how to interpret their melodies and tone. This song cycle which runs about two and half hours long is a test to one’s skill and confidence. And despite the boundaries in the music, there are countless ways to play it.

To release an album called Hilary Hahn Plays Bach as a first album at the age of seventeen was a brave choice, but one that she describes in a recent interview as “practical” because she had been playing the pieces since the age of nine.

The precision and the character given to each note in her 1997 album is what established her as one of the best violinists of our time.

Since the release of her first album, Hahn’s professional accomplishments include winning 3 Grammys, recording 27 records and playing over 1500 concerts. Along with her distinct style, she has become known for her vast and diverse repertoire and also her accessibility on social media, her sense of humor and warmth.

In October of this year she released Sonatas 1 & 2 on the album also called Hilary Hahn Plays Bach, completing her recordings of the song cycle.

There’s a boldness and presence in her interpretation on this record that make it an uplifting listening experience. At first listen, her musical choices surprised me and clashed with what I expected. But now, I am convinced of her decision to increase the tempo on certain pieces, especially the Fuga from Sonata 1.

Sonically, Hilary Plays Bach is a wall of sound that will jumpstart any sluggish morning or moments lacking motivation. It’s empowering, musically and also to witness a musician’s continued ascent. So often in pop culture, it’s the decline of a musician that is the focus of an artist’s career.

On a personal note, I have played music for most of my life and give much credit to Hahn for helping me understand how to play the violin and to perform. No matter what your skill or level, it’s important to not just strive for perfection, but your own interpretation on what it is you are playing.

This sentiment can be applied to any subject. To me, this philosophy is what her latest album, Hilary Hahn plays Bach: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2; Partita No. 1 represents.

Hahn is a teacher to her listeners not just through her music but also through her outreach on social media and in her interviews. On Instagram, her series #100daysofpractice gives a glimpse into how she works on her craft.

The series is popular within the string community, not just because we want to figure out how she plays, but because it does show that creating requires time and dedication that quite frankly is often tedious and tiresome, even for virtuosos.

Editor’s Note: For those of you new to this artist, Hilary Hahn is an American violinist who has performed throughout the world both as a soloist with leading orchestras and conductors, and as a recitalist. She began playing the violin one month before her fourth birthday.

ARTS & CULTURE Music | Album Review: Hilary Hahn plays Bach: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2; Partita No. 1
Left: Hilary Hahn; Right: photo by Amber Fairweather

“An artistic statement rarely emerges from a vacuum. It grows out of some kernel of inspiration that eventually becomes an individual creation.” – Hilary Hahn, Slate, 2015

Below are a few of my favorite recordings of Hahn. Her new album can be found here and be sure to listen to her talk about her new album with WRCJ Detroit and the New York Times and her practice process with Strings Magazine.

 J.S. Bach: Concerto for Oboe, Violin, Strings and Continuo in C Minor BWV 1060 – with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, from Hahn’s album, Bach: Violin Concertos.

Mozart: Sonata For Piano And Violin In E Minor, K.304, Tempo di minuetto – with Natalie Zhu, from Hahn’s album, Mozart: Violin Sonatas

J.S. Bach: Sonata for Violin Solo No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 – Presto, from Hahn’s new album Hilary Hahn Plays Bach

Beethoven: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 61, a performance with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

J.S. Bach: Violin Sonata No. 3, BWV 1005, from Hilary Plays Bach (1997)

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