Hilary Hahn’s world tour arrived in London for a single concert at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday, bringing with it the American violinist’s characteristic assurance, poise and a really rather original programme. Not featuring, as one might have expected, music from her new CD of Vieuxtemps and Mozart, but instead interspersing classics – Schumann, Debussy, and Bach – with items from her earlier disc of newly-commissioned encores and other unusual choices, this wide-ranging programme was performed throughout with great verve and style by Hahn and Cory Smythe.

Hilary Hahn © Michael Patrick O'Leary
Hilary Hahn
© Michael Patrick O'Leary

For an opener, Schnittke’s Stille Nacht was an unexpected choice; written for the 160th anniversary of Gruber’s original, it claims to be an affectionate tribute to a well-known tune. Hahn and Smythe played it deadpan – the only way, surely – but wrong-note japes with such a famous melody are, as the audience’s reaction proved, pure Borge-esque comedy. In March, too, rather than, say, Christmas, this little wink opened the door on a recital that had a little more to say for itself than the established classics dominating its timespan suggested. Following it up with Cage’s restrained Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard was a masterstroke. Using only a very few notes (Cage restricted himself to what he called a ‘gamut’) and a set of non-negotiable compositional blocks, there’s objectively not much material here to work with. Hahn and Smythe, however, found a perfect quiet intensity, never over-playing their hand but judging the weight of each gem-like note exquisitely. Deceptively difficult for the violin, the long, languid harmonic passages were brought off effortlessly.

An unavoidable issue with piecemeal programming is the justification for the shorter pieces; five minutes against 20 or 30 is, well, rather unbalanced. However, following on from enlarging the repertoire with her new encores, she uses them to explore the development of the violin, its place in history, and even mere points of technique. Hence why, for both the final two items of each half, we had a short work from the Hilary Hahn Encores followed by a major violin milestone. In the second half, it was Lera Auerbach’s Speak, Memory, a dark, tormented caprice, where an initial storm tries to recall some distant thought but gives way to dissonant, hopeless despair; this preceded Schumann’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in A minor, which seems to begin with the very memory Auerbach has sought. Returning again towards the end of the piece, the persistent theme of memory expressed both by Schumann – in his characteristically worthy way – and Auerbach, though more metaphysically, was to the fore, and was an effective demonstration of the continuing appeal of the violin’s piercing but deep, nostalgic tone as a muse.

So with the Bach, which followed David Lang’s intricate toccata light moving, a moto perpetuo where the violin plays scores of frightfully difficult semiquavers, accompanying the piano’s quirky, unpredictable melodies. One might complain, if one were truly splitting hairs, that Hahn was just slightly to the fore, but this was only because she emphasised subtly the musical patterns in these apparently wayward streams. The connection with Bach’s lengthy chains of bariolage in the E major Partita was immediately apparent, and Hahn’s delicacy and focus in shaping the phrases, even those broken up by bowing, was only clearer here for the loss of the pianist. Indeed, though the audience applauded the Prelude and Gavotte – the lightest of the movements – which were, naturally, wonderful, it was in the graceful Loure that I felt Hahn’s aristocratic and colourful playing was most on show. The beauty of her melodic playing was only balanced by unfussy, clear rhythmic definition in the bouncier movements, and it was a delight from start to finish.

Debussy and Schumann’s Sonatas share several features structurally and musically; both feature notable ‘cyclic’ forms with melodies returning across movements, a vast range of moods and colours for the duo to deal with, and a conversational air between musical partners. If anything, the one criticism I might level at this recital is that Smythe did not quite rise to Hahn’s level of characterisation across pieces; I always felt the piano stayed accompanimental rather than an equal partner as it should be in both these pieces. Particularly when Hahn, exquisitely playful in the Debussy and then forceful, even aggressive (though never compromising a beautiful tone) in the darker moments of the Schumann, is giving the music so much of herself, the music needed more discourse to be wholly convincing. Once again, though, I find myself splitting hairs, particularly when both these pieces were played with such thrilling attention to detail and clear affection as they were by Hahn. As a demonstration of her absolute brilliance and musicality, this recital was as fine an exhibition as one could have imagined.