The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Recitals don’t come more perfect than the one by violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Valentina Lisitsa at the Wisconsin Union Theater | February 21, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Can anyone today plan and perform a more imaginative or original recital program than violinist Hilary Hahn (below)?

The question lingered in my mind after the performance by her and pianist Valentina Lisitsa on Thursday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

It was no quirk, since several years ago in the same hall Hahn and Lisitsa also gave one of the most memorable recital programs I have ever heard.

Hahn knows how to build and execute a program in an unusual or unconventional but thoroughly convincing way.

This time, she opened with a Fritz Kreisler (below) arrangement of Tartini, one of those technical bonbons that should close a program or even be a throw-away, show-off encore, but instead raised the curtain with infectious energy.

Then it was on to a beautifully restrained reading of Beethoven’s evergreen “Spring” Sonata. No schmaltz, but lots of subtlety than made this staple seem fresh.

And to close out the first half came the Charles IvesSonata No. 4, with its alternating dissonances and lyricism plus its references to hymn tunes at a camp meeting. In Hahn’s hands the eclecticism of Ives (below) seemed so natural, so deeply American.

After intermission, Hahn came out solo to perform the Partita No. 1 in B Minor for solo violin by J.S. Bach.

Because of chronology, it is the kind of piece many violinists would open a program with. But Hahn showed it shouldn’t be. The Bach is very, very hard both in notes and in depth. The performer needs to be warmed up technically and emotionally, and the audience has to be ready and receptive too.

She was and we were.

For this listener, Hahn’s Bach was the highlight of the evening. The tone was beautiful and the as pitch unfailing as the articulation. And yet Hahn always kept the music about music, not about the violin or her own virtuosity. You heard no ego, but instead a wonderful mixing of voices and themes, in a call and response fashion. It proved a subtle display of supreme musicality.

The duo finished with the relatively unknown and self-consciously avant-garde Violin Sonata No. 1 (1932) by George Antheil. As music, I find it more impressive than likeable, especially with its strong piano part and the sharp rhythmic motifs, big leaps and repeated notes and percussiveness that made it at times seems like American Bartok.

But it sure worked. Impressed by what they saw as well as heard, the large audience of perhaps 1,000 was worked up and gave the performers a prolonged standing ovation.

Hahn rewarded them with more Bach, the sprightly and tuneful opening movement of the Solo Partita No. 3, which she has recorded.

More applause. Much more.

Then in a really classy move — and for the first time I’ve ever heard or seen it done — pianist Lisitsa came out for a solo encore. She offered a splendid and stunningly gorgeous reading of Chopin’s much overdone Nocturne in E- Flat, from (Op. 9, the so-called “Eddie Duchen” nocturne).

Lisitsa stripped off the yellow waxy buildup and in a straightforward way revealed the piece for the beauty it contains with a great singing line, long phrases and a deeply warm, rich tone with the right color. This was memorable night music for a memorable night.

It displayed all the many virtues and gifts of Lisitsa who seems an ideal chamber music partner. She neither steals the spotlight nor hides in the shadows. She plays strongly as a true collaborator and equal partner, not just an accompanist. Give-and-take marked the entire program.

Hahn and Lisitsa (below), in short, make a great team.

Now if the record companies would just let them do some of their great recital programs instead of concerto recordings, I’ll be the first in line to buy them.

And you can count on this: Barring some accident or something unforeseen, Hilary Hahn, still only in her early 30s, is a major talent with any decades of great music-making still ahead of her.

Care to compare critics?

Here is a review by Lindsay Christians of The Capital Times:

What did you think of the Hahn and Lisitsa recital?

Of the program?

And of the performance of the program?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I thought it seemed unusual that Lisitsa came out to give an encore as well — and I’m so glad she did! The piece she played is one my husband used to frequently play in the evenings (when our piano was still in the house) to wind down. I love it.

    I attended this concert alone, as I often do, so it’s great to see other perspectives, especially well-versed ones. I thought the Bach was wonderful — “a subtle display of supreme musicality,” indeed.


    Comment by lindsayc77 — February 24, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    • Hi Lindsay,
      It was indeed memorable.
      I hope your husband played that Nocturne even close to how Lisitsa did it. it was so beautiful rather than the usual hackneyed sentiment. This was sentiment without sentimentality.
      Thanks for reading and replying. Hope things are going well.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 24, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

  2. We both enjoyed this concert very much. To hear two such amazing artists collaborate is divine. We admire both musicians, and this concert was exactly as you described it ahead of time–a must-hear concert.

    We are particularly fascinated with Valentina’s technique. Her arms are so relaxed; there is so much follow-through. Watching Valentina play is like watching a ballerina. Most pianists today are interested in what happens at the moment when the hammer strikes the string, and obviously so, as the artists must be faithful to the precise time and rhythm. When watching Valentina play, you might think she is overly theatrical in her gestures. When she plays she creates expression even after the notes are played, and if you watch and listen carefully, we think you can hear it. We were delighted that Valentina also played an encore.

    We agree with your comments about saving the Bach for the opening piece after the intermission. The programming was perfect.

    You wrote a great review all the way around, Jake.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Tim and Renee Farley — February 21, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    • Hi Tim and Renee,
      Thank you for your kind words and your agreement with my review.
      It means a lot, coming from such discerning listeners.
      It really was a memorable vent. The violin playing was sublime.
      And I think you make very good points about Valentina’s piano playing technique, which merits the close observation you gave it.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 21, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by anselmonadir, Chris McGovern. Chris McGovern said: Hilary Hahn and pianist Valentina Lisitsa at the Wisconsin Union Theater: […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Classical music review: Recitals don’t come more perfect than the one by violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Valentina Lisitsa at the Wisconsin Union Theater « The Well-Tempered Ear -- — February 21, 2011 @ 6:38 am

  4. Great review, Jake! Hilary Hahn is superb at both programming a recital and performing it! I much prefer her recitals over her symphonic appearances because the night is 100% hers (except she let Valentina play a solo encore this time, which must have been great as well!). The shows I’ve seen in the last 6 years (saw one with Natalie Zhu and two with Lisitsa) have had such a great array of selection, and it sounds like this latest one tops what she’s already done previously. Wonderful that she managed to captivate the audience with Antheil, a piece that makes one doubt tolerance in a mainstream concert crowd. I hope I get to hear her play it someday.

    Comment by Chris McGovern — February 21, 2011 @ 2:01 am

    • Hi Chris,
      I am happy you agree with the review.
      Sounds like you’ve heard a good share of Hilary in recital.
      I’d love to hear even more.
      And I would like some recital CDs.
      Thanks for reading and replying with such enthusiasm.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 21, 2011 @ 9:55 am

      • Well she does have the Ives CD coming up, which I can’t wait to hear. But it’d be great if she could do a live recording in that setting with the different works together.

        Comment by Chris McGovern — February 21, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,268 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,373,576 hits
%d bloggers like this: