Passing on the knowledge – Interview with Hilary Hahn

Hilary Hahn portrait by © Dana van Leeuwen

Following a sabbatical and the pandemic year, the american violinist Hilary Hahn is back on the road. This week finds her in Frankfurt, performing Ginastera and Sarasate. In addition to returning to the stage, her latest Deutsche Grammophon album, Paris, is also fresh off the press.

Recorded in 2019 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and their Chief Conductor Mikko Franck, the new album is conceived around the world premiere recording of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s final work, Deux Sérénades (2016), written for Hahn. The multi-layered genesis of the sixteen-minute, two-movement work goes back to a decade-or-so, all the way to Hahn’s Encores project of early 2010s.

”I never saw Rautavaara in person, but I did commision him to write a piece for the Encores project. The piece he wrote for it was Whispering, and that gave a bit of an insight into his personality around music; his way of looking at things and his way of working with dualities”, Hahn recalls in our Zoom call between Frankfurt and Tampere, Finland.

”He said of that piece that it is possible to be virtuosic and without being loud. And that was a really interesting way to frame it, I thought, because there were composers for that project, who were writing not virtuosic works, and composers who were writing virtuosic works; but he made a point saying this is virtuosic, even though it is neither extremely fast nor very loud. It was also a cue to the performer how to play it: don’t get too carried away here.”

The next step on Hahn’s road to Rautavaara was performing his Violin Concerto (1977) in Paris, at the invitation of Franck, who had long-standing professional and personal ties to the composer.

”I hadn’t played the concerto before, but I loved the piece. In order to bring a lot of power to a piece by a living composer that is not written for you, it is helpful to perform it with an advocate; someone who knows the music and the composer so well and who can take that advocate role and be the primary guide through it.

Working on that piece with Mikko, I felt confident. I was sure that he would know all of the context. It was incredibly interesting to work on that piece with him, because he knew so much! He knew all the between-the-lines things. So any question I had, any thing I would even think to question, he knew the background of.”

The idea of commissioning a new piece from Rautavaara first began to take shape in the course of the rehearsal process for the concerto.

”I said to Mikko that it would be great to have another violin concerto written by him that we could do. I really wanted to have the experience of the advocacy role with a concerto, to be the person whom it is written for, because I had had that with the encore that he wrote. And Mikko said that ’well Einojuhani is ill right now, and I don’t think it is good time to talk to him, but I’ll bring it up if he’s feeling well enough to discuss future work.’

Having learned that the composer was ill, and since I didn’t hear otherwise, I assumed that it wasn’t a possibility at this point. It was only after the funeral, that I heard a sequence of updates from Mikko.”

Franck had indeed brought the commission up with Rautavaara, and the composer had countered the idea of writing a concerto with a suggestion of composing two serenades instead. The conductor was working on getting the new work officially commissioned, when he heard the news of the composer’s passing.

”Mikko told me that he had visited Rautavaara’s studio after the funeral, and Sini Rautavaara, the composer’s widow,had showed him a score of two serenades for violin and orchestra, titled in French and Finnish, which was very unusual for Rautavaara. And he simply said to me ’I believe this is our piece.’

It was amazing! Hearing all of this news all at once was pretty overwhelming for me. Here was the final work.”

Since the full score was not entirely completed, Franck worked with a fellow Finn, the composer Kalevi Aho at it, to make sure that everything was the way the composer would have intended, according to Rautavaara’s elaborate short score. The violin part was complete, alongside the orchestration of the first Sérénade. As for the second Sérénade, Rautavaara had finished the orchestration for the first 35 bars, in addition to the string parts on bars 36-96.

In the end, Aho’s task was to enter the missing wind parts on those bars, as well as completing the orchestration on bars 97-153, following the guidelines from Rautavaara’s draft score. While some of the dynamic markings were found in Rautavaara’s hand, they were mostly entered by Aho as the finishing touches, paving the way for the 17 February 2019 world premiere in Paris.

”I had this residence with Radio France, and a lot of in winded up being with the orchestra and Mikko. We wanted to premiere the Sérénades as a part of the residency. And that’s actually why we did the recording too.

We started the residency with a late summer performance in a festival, and the artistic connection was so strong! It wasn’t like it hadn’t been before, but it was very clearly now. I had been working with Mikko for years, and I had worked with him and with the orchestra together before, and the orchestra and Mikko had been working together for years. And now was the time that we had all season working together.

We wanted to make sure that the Sérénades would have as much longevity as I give to pretty much everything I commission, by recording it. So that’s where the recording started, in that moment when the music was there and we were looking ahead. Then the brainstorming started about what else we would put on it, and we were completely on the same page about the rest of the record as well.”

Hilary Hahn portrait by © OJ Slaughter

Premiere performances and recordings are of great importance for Hahn. Setting the guidelines for the future, there is a very special form of responsibility at play as well.

”As a young musician, you are aware of the continuity of knowledge. The continuity of traditions and the passing of responsibility, even, from generation to generation. You definitely sense that in older pieces that you play. It is really important how they were documented and treated in their first generation, and how that knowledge was passed on. It is incredibly important that that knowledge did not skip generations, because then it gets lost. There’s a lot of historical research that can be done, certainly, but you can’t actually know for sure any more.

Lately, I’ve been working also with Anton García Abriel, the Spanish composer who passed away recently. I premiered and recorded his Partitas that I commissioned. I was aware of this feeling, this immense responsibility to carry this music and this knowledge through, and not let it fade away.

The Rautavaara was a first time I was doing a posthumous premiere, but I knew that Mikko had that knowledge that he was carrying. And then it also becomes my knowledge, that I carry. Because I’m the soloist who premiered it, the person who asked those first questions and who got those first answers; almost directly from the source, because Mikko is so knowledgeable and such a personal connection to Rautavaara. He probably knew almost more about the music than Rautavaara himself would, probably, if you asked him. It was just very poignant for me to be onstage with the orchestra also aware of all of this.”

Giving the first performance of Rautavaara’s final work was both a big honor and a completely unique experience for Hahn.

”As we were playing, the orchestra and I, probably Mikko as well, we were acutely aware that each note was an end and a beginning. While any of those notes would not be written again by Rautavaara, each note was also being born to the composer’s repertoire and therefore completing his catalogue, in a way that it allows it to be out there in the world in its completion. So every note, every moment was an end and a beginning as we were doing it. Every note was transitioning before your eyes. And you have a sense of history going second by second, by second, because it is an intensely different situation when you were done with the piece than it was when you started.

With a living composer, that happens too, but there’s all of this ambiguity about where does this go, what’s the next thing that is going to be written. Here, there is no ambiguity. This is it!”

Titled Sérénade por mon amour / Serenadi rakastetulle and Sérénade pour la vie / Serenadi elämälle, the two movements comprise a captivating whole. Conceived in the composer’s autumnal late style, the music is abundant with references and hidden undercurrents, including more or less direct quotations from earlier scores.

”I did not realize, how much he quotes himself in his work. It has been interesting to find out what it points back to and how he reframes it. Since Mikko had done those other pieces, he knew the tonal and expressive requests of the composer, in those contexts. It was a matter of finding that space on the violin, because there are a lot of moments where you can go very dramatic and very operatic, because there’s an opera quote in the score. The orchestra can be very expressive and outward, but actually then you wind up at a dead end. You go all the way there, but it somehow doesn’t work.

I had been practicing like that, and I said to Mikko ’I just don’t know what to do! I can’t do enough!’ And he said ’you shouldn’t do anything. Don’t try to be dramatic, let the music be in its time and let the music speak; it is not supposed to be overtly expressive. You have to keep inside it.’

It was really interesting also for the orchestra, because we all wanted to add so much meaning to every note. We needed to restrain ourselves and hold ourselves back and trust the music. It’s something you don’t normally do in a world premiere. Normally you’re trying to convince everyone and then you chill it out after the world premiere.

So it was really interesting to have that knowledge going into it and have that approach. I think, when people see the title, Deux Sérénades, maybe it is more of a vocal cue as well; a cue that it is not a Concerto or a showy piece. But at the same time, it has a lot of expressiveness under the surface. I’m really glad I could do the piece with Mikko, because if I’d approached it fresh with someone who had not done Rautavaara before, it would probably have ended up in a direction the composer had not had in his mind.”

While the elegiac first Sérénade is scored for strings alone, the second includes also duple winds and four horns. The closing Sérénade pour la vie a a fascinatingly rippling affair, ending with a marvellous coda. Instead of fading away in the distance, the music plunges into a final agitato on bar 133, transforming into a lively final statement.

”It is like a little homage, in my head. It feels very much like the third movement of the Barber concerto, which pumps it up at the end. The two Sérénades are quite different from one another and also the orchestration feels very different. And the titles are interesting as well. They are such positive, sweeping titles. Mikko mentioned to me that he feels like they were intentionally the final titles.”

Hilary Hahn practicing. © Dana van Leeuwen

In addition to Rautavaara’s musical farewell, Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in D major, Op. 19 (1916-17) makes its appearance on the new album as well. Prokofiev’s riveting concerto was premiered in Paris in 1923, with Marcel Darrieux as soloist and Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Paris Opera Orchestra, in a programme that also featured the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments (1922-23), under the composer’s direction.

”What a time in history! What a time of overlap of art forms in specific locations. I think now we have a lot of different art forms in a lot of different locations, whereas then there was a definite intersection of a lot of things that would happen, and one of those places was Paris and another place, I would imagine, was somewhere in Russia. The Russian-French connection was really major, culturally, at that time. I always think of the Ballets russes and the whole cultural scene in Paris.

I’ve always associated the Prokofiev Concerto with Paris, not only because it was premiered there, but also because I knew stories of people playing it around that time it was new in Paris. It is one of those pieces I feel very close to. I’ve gone through a lot of evolution with that piece and arrived in a place, where I know exactly what it is to me and what I can do for it; this is my style inside this piece.

I could have chosen to record it many times before, but I really wanted to it be the right combination of circumstances, because it is so pivotal for me. I wanted it to feel like the right time, with the right colleagues, with the right musicality and the right colour. Because it is a shorter concerto, it can easily become the extra piece on an album. And therefore the project would also had to be right, where it would have its own space to exist.

And that all just felt like exactly the thing to do on this album, with these people, because the orchestra has all those colours! It is not simply a Russian concerto; it has this sort of French colouristic element to it, but it has the edge and the sarcasm and ugliness, I think, in a good way. It has that side to it that benefits from the range of tone-colours in this orchestra. The thing about this piece is that it needs to be able to change character constantly. It is really that fast and that complete; there are suddences, where you have to be in it immediately, and then you have to change it immediately.

And also the architecture is important and Mikko has a great sense of architecture in his interpretations. So all of that coming together, it really felt like a great piece to do at this point.”

Cast in three movements and lasting circa 23 minutes, the Prokofiev concerto might appear somewhat conventional affair at first glance. However, on a closer look, there is nothing conventional with the score. The usual tempo relationships are reversed, with two chameleon-like outer movements framing a spiky central scherzo.

”It is turned upside down and inside out. And yet, it winds up where it begins, somehow completing its cycle. It is a brilliant piece, and there is so much to be done within it. It plays itself, in a sense, but there are so many ways to vary the tonality and vary the texture. And it is all in the music; it is about choosing which element do you extract for any given phrase. It is also so specific to his way of writing, but it is also really specific for the instrument. I think the instrumentation is fantastic.”

Preceding the Prokofiev concerto, the album opens with Ernest Chausson’s luminous Poème, Op. 25(1896) for violin and orchestra. Written for Eugène Ysaÿe, who gave its first Paris performance on 4 April 1897, resulting in rousing ovation; the composer’s first unanimous success.

”The second Poème popped into my head as potentially something to do with this orchestra, I knew I had to do it. There’s a way that French musicians play French music, where they don’t try to sound French, they just play. Surprise! It is a sort of authority within the style, that allows you to get into the content of the music really quickly.”

Cast in a single seventeen-minute arch, Poème marks Chausson’s deliberate departure from the concerto scheme, which was reluctant to tackle with, calling it ”the devil’s own task” in a letter to Ysaÿe. Originally titled as Poème symphonique, the score is a manifestation of a through rethink of the roles of a soloist and an orchestra.

”There is a deep expressiveness in the Poème, that I really wanted to explore with them. And an another thing about that piece that made me want to do it with Mikko and this orchestra is that I cannot play the whole piece. I take what is given to me, and go with that, and then I give it back. And the orchestra has to, essentially, play the piece, and I play what I am given.

If you are a soloist working with an orchestra and a conductor who don’t shape the music with you in mind, who don’t look at the huge picture and meet all of the requirements, all of the musical challenges, then it doesn’t really work as a piece. I have to be the smallest and the lead-in, and they have to do everything around that, in order to let me have that freedom. I need a lot of freedom in my part, as a soloist, so the collaborators need to understand that as well. There are times, when I am in charge of the shape, and they have to trust it, and really go with it and take it from there, and give me back something. We need to trust each other and give each other the space to be our maximum musical selves.

And that piece just has so much potential for that. When I am performing it with my colleagues and it is working, the way I get goosebumps in a performance, it’s just like being dunked into a tank of emotions! It is just such a beautiful, expressive, communicative piece. And the fact that it starts so dark, and it allows me to start so quiet. You really have to be in every note, as they emerge from the music.

I was was really glad to have the opportunity to play it with them and to record it. It’s one of those pieces that I love that I don’t get to play a lot. It is maybe challenging to program. And also on this record, it was another piece that could stand on its own, without taking away the individuality of the other works.”

One of the most striking aspects of Poème is indeed its dark-hued opening, rooted in fascinating sense of timelessness, perhaps akin, to some degree, to the astounding trajectory of Richard Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1857-59). Out of the mist-clad orchestral introduction, the solo line emerges, spell-like, as if in a dream.

”The piece has melody and everything, but there is an aspect of it, that, as a listener, it is not about finding the melody, instead, the melody sort of happens to you. You have to be in the space and you’ll be swept into something. It’s amazing! It’s like time and space have moved with you in it. From the first note, it is just really apparent that this is where you are.”

Just two years after the Paris success of Poème, Chausson’s life was cut short in a bicycle accident at the age of forty four. Out of this thirty nine opus-numbered works, Poème is widely considered as his ultimate masterpiece.

”For me, it is a very powerful work. Chausson had a lot of options in his life, and he chose to be a composer. He came from a background, where he could have been very involved in the arts, without choosing to compose. And he wasn’t always so well received as a composer. But he peresevered. He was finally finding his stride and then he had the cycling incident, and that was it.

And this is the thing he left for me to play! I see Poème as a culmination of all of his musical efforts and appreciations. Knowing that, I think, every note is even more important, because there aren’t that many. He did not left us with that many famous pieces. These are the notes, in this moment, and there aren’t unlimited. For me, it is also a bit of a pre-requiem. The emotion in the piece is significant; it is light, but it is also dark. This piece is also very meaningful to play, for that feeling of significance you get out of it. It is impossible to know what his mind-set was when he was writing it, but it does feel like a real statement about something.”

Even though it seems obvious now, with hindsight, that the album is called Paris, the title came, in fact, after everything was done.

”We didn’t start out with a Paris record. It came to me only afterwards, while looking at all of the things that had come to pass. I was sitting on my basement floor stretching, having listened to the album in post-production, and was like ’Paris! It’s Paris!’ I was texting everybody ’is it Paris? Is it Paris? And they were, like, ’yeah, it’s Paris!


Hilary Hahn, violin

Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

Mikko Franck, conductor

Ernest Chausson: Poème, op. 25 (1896) for violin and orchestra

Sergei Prokofiev: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in D major, op. 19 (1916-17)

Einojuhani Rautavaara: Deux Sérénades (2016/2018) – Two movements for violin and orchestra. Orchestration completed posthumously by Kalevi Aho

Recorded at the Auditorium of Radio France on February 2019 (Rautavaara) and June 2019 (Chausson, Prokofiev)

Deutsche Grammophon 4839847 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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