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Interviews

Bach: Violin and Voice
08 Jan 2010

An interview with Hilary Hahn

American violinist Hilary Hahn has entered her fourth decade, having turned thirty last year, and for her eleventh disc she takes on a collaborative role, as obbligatist in a program of Bach cantata arias with soprano Christine Schäfer and baritone Matthias Goerne, accompanied by the Münchener Kammerorchester under the direction of Alexander Liebreich.

An interview with Hilary Hahn

By Tom Moore

Deutsche Grammophon 477 8092 2 [CD]

$13.99  Click to buy

Her discography began in 1997 with a CD of the second half of the Sonatas and Partitas of Bach, and also includes a disc of Bach violin concertos with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Except for the Bach solos, and a disc of Mozart sonatas with piano, she has appeared as a concerto soloist, so her most recent release is a radical departure. Her vocal collaborators are not known as early music specialists, but the continuo section includes three figures with extensive work in the area — Naoki Kitaya, harpsichord and organ, Rosario Conte, theorbo, and Kristin von der Goltz, violoncello (a former member of the exceptional Freiburger Barockorchester, directed by her older brother Gottfried.

We spoke by telephone on January 6, 2010.

TM: In the context of a disc of Bach arias, it seems to make sense to ask “Were you brought up Lutheran?”

HH: Yes.

TM: So this repertoire fits in with what you heard as a child.

HH: Absolutely. My dad sang in a church choir, so there was a lot of this music around the holidays. I was familiar with the vocal ensemble repertoire from an early age.

TM: I know this a project you have been thinking about for quite some time. Did you build the program around the texts of the arias, or were they chosen more for musical reasons?

HH: I wanted to leave the decision about what arias to include with the singers. I like all of it, and wanted to do what the singers were particularly excited by. It’s so rich. We began to narrow it down since there is more than could fit into one album. I became more conscious of the words as I learned the music. In this repertoire I have to make the violin match the vocal parts, but also remain true to the instrument. It doesn’t work to just copy what the vocalists are doing — it has to be translated into a violinistic context, to make it work musically without the words. It was important to learn the notes first, and then the words, and then put it all together.

TM: Bach’s musical interpretations of these fraught texts are fascinating. So many of the texts in your CD are similar in tone to that from BWV 158 [Der Friede sei mit dir] — “Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde” — “goodbye, cruel world”, to put it in modern terms. Perhaps this has to do with the way that Bach looks at the violin — a heavenly sound, in that sense. The arias are so tightly focused on death. Was that present for you, as you went through the project?

HH: I can look at it from the perspective of the words, or from the perspective of the notes. The words don’t determine everything about my interpretation. For a singer, the tone and articulation are determined by the consonants and vowels in a word. It’s less so for the violin, but I have to know that they are in order to match the singers. I was involved with interpretation from the literary, but also separated from that to go back to just the notes.

TM: You remarked in your video on the project about how singers sing, how singers phrase, and how singers relate to other musicians. Could you expand on that a little?

HH: Singers are very close to their instruments — you can’t switch your instrument — you’ve got what you’ve got. You live with that instrument and know it inside and out, it’s part of your body. It’s a different relationship with the instrument than an instrumentalist has. You can leave your instrument for a day, and go out and do something else. For singers the limitations of the human voice have much to do with how things are written for the voice, what the repertoire is, what singers take on. The voice that a singer has determines what kind of musician they become. A man can play a violin, and a woman can play a cello, but a woman can’t sing bass. On the interpretive side the singer has to think about getting the meaning of the words across, and the meaning of the notes. An instrumentalist has technical things to keep in mind as you play, but for singers you have a combination of theater and musical interpretation, theater in the sense of projecting the words in the right way. We forget how often we hear things in languages we don’t know in classical music.

Hahn_DG.gifHilary Hahn [Photo by Olaf Heine courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon]

TM: Christine Schäfer remarks that Bach’s vocal lines are almost unsingable because there is no space for a breath. Do you find things that are similarly awkward in his writing for violin?

HH: Absolutely, though not something as basic as that. It is tricky to play Bach well, because it is exposed and complex — that combination can be treacherous, but at the same time it is extremely rewarding. You have a lot of options as well. You can play it any which way, as long as it is convincing for the listener. There are many different styles of performance for Bach, and they all have their place.

TM: Bach survives best from the baroque because he is so open to modern performances, much more so than his French contemporaries. There are certainly pieces where Bach is writing against the instrumentalist, as Richard Taruskin has written about. A good example can be found in the St. John Passion, where he writes two baroque flutes in unison in a difficult key, in order to show them that this is something they just can’t do. Even if they try, it will be uncomfortable. Were there moments where you found he was writing against your best intentions?

HH: There are ways of playing the arias that are easier than others, and that has to do with tempi, and bowings. Sometimes what works best for the voice doesn’t work best for the instrument, but in that case the singer should take precedence. I wanted to make sure the singers did things the way they wanted to, because I could always adjust.

There are certain passages that seem easy enough listening to them, but they are awkward — awkward at a certain speed, awkward with a certain interpretation. But it’s that way with everything. I don’t think there is a single piece I have played that just fits like a dream. You figure out how to make it work for you, how to bring it across to the audience effectively, and there is a certain amount of molding yourself to the piece that goes on. Once you do that, then you can feel comfortable with it. I feel that if it feels awkward and weird and uncomfortable, maybe it’s not there yet — maybe there is another way to work it out. It may not be a way that you do naturally, so then you have to learn it, and then you can go to the next level with it.

TM: This is perhaps what makes him German, rather than Italian. Italian music tends to be written with the instrument in mind, what it can do, what it can’t do, rather than to give it an idiom that is intrinsically difficult.

HH: I like that challenge, though, because it makes me question how I approach the instrument and the music, and it will give me references about how to approach something that might be problematic in the future. The more I am challenged, the more solutions I come up with, the more I feel I know my instrument. If everything fits that well, I wouldn’t feel like I had gone to some limit and pushed a little bit past it.

TM: You have said Bach has a spiritual effect on people.

HH: No matter where I am playing, at a school, at a Q& A session, in a concert hall, whether it’s solo, or chamber music, or a concerto, it changes the feeling in the room — everything gets really focused. The music changes people’s states of mind. There’s a meditative focus.

TM: Can you step back from the music and observe what is going on?

HH: You can tell what is happening in the room. Bach takes a lot of concentration for an architecturally sound interpretation, so there is that kind of focus, but I can tell what kind of response there is.

TM: Is there one of these arias in particular that changed your approach to Bach?

HH: It was more of a development than a series of “ah-ha!” moments. I have always thought of the Bach solo violin repertoire as vocal.

TM: Your training comes from the Russian and Franco-Belgian schools, but this repertoire has been informed by those using period instruments. Was this something that was in your ears in making the CD?

HH: I am sure — I have heard so much Bach on period instruments, and I have so much respect for that tradition, the scholarship on performance, but I haven’t been trained in it, and I am not one to jump into something with knowing what I am doing in the area. I learned a lot from the musicians on the project who come from that approach. They were amazing, and answered a lot of questions I had, and helped me with decisions on interpretation. It’s been influential for me, but I don’t play in that style because I have enough respect for not to simply jump in.

TM: Is that something you see in your future?

HH: I would have to stop and study it for a few years in order to have that knowledge. I don’t see it happening, logistically. I take what I like from what I hear, and my preferences change as I change.

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