If the Cadogan Hall’s “Celebrity Recital Series” conjures up unwelcome memories of Jordan’s brief career as a singer, never fear: the Hall has attracted a very different type of famous figure. Hilary Hahn is as unlike Katie Price as could be imagined: small, dark and unassuming, you could pass her in the street without a second glance. Unless, that is, you are aware of the hype that surrounds the American violinist. With a flawless recording of the near-impossible Schoenberg Violin Concerto and multiple awards to her name, the word most attached to Hilary Hahn is ‘perfection’. Hahn and pianist Valentina Lisitsa brought this perfection the London stage last night in a programme of Beethoven and Bach, neatly contrasting with the Sonatas of two twentieth century American composers, Ives and Antheil.

© Peter Miller
© Peter Miller

Less neat was the choice of the opening piece: Kreisler’s virtuosic Variations on a Theme by Corelli are more often used to send the audience home with a smile, the whipped cream decorating a more substantial performance. The piece announced Hahn’s masterful technique and pure tone, however this declaration was hardly necessary; these attributes would have shone through just as well in a more thoughtful piece, introducing her as a musician rather than a violinist.

Such allegations cannot be levelled at Beethoven’s Spring Sonata. Despite being one of his most optimistic works, the Sonata was written as the composer came to accept that he would never hear again. To this sunny piece Hahn brought perfection and energy, her approach suiting the lively third movement more than the reflective second. The sonata is for piano and violin – note the unusual order – and indeed the piano plays a starring role. A wise choice with Lisitsa at the keyboard: her expressive musicality and vivid array of sounds brought the music to life.

The Beethoven Sonata can be said to reflect the troubled composer’s inner life, Charles Ives’s Sonata has a more tangible basis. Subtitled Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting, it uses popular hymns to create the atmosphere at special Children’s Services in towns across Connecticut. It is infused with the barn-storming rhythms we associate with the early American composers; however the harmonic language is wonderfully exotic. As with the entire programme, Hahn performed the piece from memory, a feat as impressive as her constantly perfect tuning.

Following the interval was the core of the recital: Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B flat minor for solo violin. The piece suited Hahn perfectly: her exquisite technique and brisk approach prevented her from becoming bogged down in the more expressive sections, whilst her bright tone worked well in the quicker movements, although some of these occasionally accelerated beyond Bach’s original intentions. The programme ended with George Antheil’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1, written during the composer’s Parisian stay in the early 1920s, when he was obviously heavily influenced by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. What the programme notes described as “pounding energy” threatened to become a pounding headache by the tenth repetition: Stravinsky may have used pulsing rhythms, however he also had a lot of other ideas. Hahn and Lisitsa performed with commitment and energy, however even their combined talent was not enough to convince. A real highlight of the evening was Lisitsa’s solo encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat, which allowed us a longer view of the superb musician we had caught glimpses of all evening. Both musicians returned for Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin, in the same vein as the dazzling opening piece but put to more customary use.