Hilary Hahn, violin; Valentina Lisitsa, piano At Koerner Hall in Toronto on Tuesday
This was almost like two recitals, or one recital played by two violinists named Hilary Hahn. One of those players was all about technical perfection; the other was on the hunt for something else.
There's no doubt that this American is a natural wonder at playing her instrument. You could get a little stoned on the seamless, rich sound she produced so easily as she flew through the most difficult music without putting a finger even halfway wrong. Her intonation was almost inhumanly accurate. You had to marvel that anyone's body, mind and temperament (not to mention dedication and discipline) could be so ideally suited to what can be a very unforgiving instrument.
Her first offering, a brilliant trifle by Fritz Kreisler ( Variations on a Theme by Corelli), was clearly offered to knock us into amazement right away. Something more surprising lay in store during Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in F major ("Spring") - boredom. The first movement is burdened with many non-developing repetitions of a couple of rather meagre tunelets. Hahn played almost all of them in exactly the same way, with the same full-sun tone. In the adagio, the excellent Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa played the opening melody with more feeling (albeit very Romantic feeling) than anything Hahn offered in her coldly beautiful response.
Hahn is renowned for her Bach playing, and her performance of the solo Partita No. 1 in B minor was as sleek as a young otter. But again, something prevented me from falling on my knees: the feeling that all this technical splendour was running ahead of real musical thought. Where was the snap in the spiky French-overture rhythms of the allemande? Did every attack thereafter have to be so smooth and without accent? Is lyricism really just a matter of joining up all the notes? Hahn seemed terrified of lifting the bow from the string, even when there was good musical reason to do so. It was a relief to reach the cross-stringed chords of the saraband, which finally put some bite into an obsessively pretty performance.
On to the other recital, or the other Hahn, the one who could tuck into two somewhat obscure pieces of American modernism with heart, gusto and no special regard for conventionally beautiful sound. She embraced the turbulent lyricism of Charles Ives's century-old Violin Sonata No. 4 (Children's Day at the Camp Meeting), and its rugged counterpoint of original ideas and well-known tunes (including witty settings of Jesus Loves Me and Shall We Gather at the River, the latter cheekily installed in the jazz-tinged finale).
Hahn made a quite heroic investment in George Antheil's Violin Sonata No. 1, a bristling piece of cubistic composition from 1923. Some of this piece is dated and derivative - the first movement could almost be an outtake from Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat - but it also includes music of real originality and character. The spooky second movement passed like a wind whistling through a Jewish graveyard, with a plaintive Hebraic melody drifting through the violin's highest register, and some striking glissandi attacks on lower held notes. In the funeral movement, Hahn draped a limpid melancholic tune over a series of underwater chords on Lisitsa's keyboard.
The bustling, balky finale was the scene of a complete breakout from the elegant house of beauty Hahn opened for us earlier. Her bow brought out some rasping, glassy sounds from near the violin's bridge, and she chopped away at a couple of mechanistic repeating segments with great verve and forward motion.
I left the hall thinking that the gifted Hilary Hahn is a more puzzling musician than I ever imagined. I also regretted that Lisitsa - a tremendous virtuoso and, on this showing, a highly intuitive recital partner - didn't get to show more of what she can do. We need to have her back for a solo recital, and soon.