The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Monday, January 30, 2006

Cosi fan Turkey?

A Mozart week in a Mozart year brought me to the Met for the "other" da Ponte opera, Cosi fan Tutte.

The performance was serviceable at best (at least by Met standards). Obviously everything was steady, polished, and meticulously played. But Levine seemed on autopilot, and took an excessively mellow view of the score. This was most sharply evident in Despina's Act I aria, "In uomini," where the performance lacked the jumpy, dance-like element that makes it one of my favorite parts of the opera.

My father (a singer) has justifiably observed that Joan Sutherland was terribly overrated. She was adored at the Met opera despite her inability (or unwillingness) to pronounce any consonants and many vowels. "Mealy-mouth," he calls her. And yet she was exceedingly popular, especially at the Met. Well, I have similar objections to Paul Groves, who sang Ferrando here. He frequently appears in Met performances and gets big ovations (although of course he's not as popular as Sutherland was), but I find him irritating in a similar, "mealy-mouthed" way. All the words and notes wash into each other into one big mess; there is no sharp articulation at all. His voice is as light as a feather without being very nimble -- his coloratura is awful. Seemingly in a constant struggle to project his voice -- and, perhaps, to act -- he has that unfortunate tendency to always puff out his chest and make sweeping gestures with his hands.

The young baritone, Mariusz Kwiecien, on the other hand, was terrific as Guglielmo, despite a supposed "severe chest cold" that required our "understanding." This announcement, by the way, is unique to the opera world. As a friend who came with me pointed out, can you imagine the coach of the Lakers stepping onto the court before the game and announcing, "Kobe Bryant has a severe chest cold; he will play anyway, but requests your understanding"? Anyway, Kwiecien will be singing the role of the Count in Figaro this coming month, I look forward to it. I hope he recovers.

Thomas Allen, as Don Alfonso, was steady as ever. He might have lost a bit since he did a terrific Beckmesser a few years ago, but he still sounds very good.

But it's the women who are most important in this opera. The female members of this particular cast (Alexandra Deshorties, Magdalena Kozena, and Nuccia Focile as Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and Despina respectively) are all fine singers. But they all sang with too much vibrato for this piece -- vibrato so wide, you could drive a truck through it, as my dad would say. The female characters do a lot of fretful and acrobatic singing in this opera, and with all the vibrato it started to sound shrill and ring in my ears after a while. They were "hitting red on the wobble-ometer," as a friend would say (ok ok, I'm done). I would have rather heard the sopranos from the Monteverdi Choir whom Gardiner featured in his C Minor Mass for these roles.

Ultimately, I think I must agree with Teri Towe and admit that this piece, by Mozart's standards, is simply a failure ("Cosi fan Turkey," he calls it). The first act has some wonderful music, particularly the gorgeous farewell scene, but around the start of the that act's finale, the opera just falls flat. It's here where you first realize that this piece pales severely in comparison with the other da Ponte operas, Don Giovanni and Figaro. The Act I finale of DG and (especially) the Act II finale of Figaro are grand scenes of escalating tension and towering music.

Think of that incredible moment in Figaro when Susanna, the Countess, and Figaro are worrying about the problem with the note in that soaring melody, while the Count accompanies them with a scurrying line, wondering when Marcellina will arrive. There is so much tension there, expressed through Mozart's unparalleled genius. He has nothing to work with, though, in Cosi's Act I finale. There's no tension at all: Four of the characters know exactly what's going on and are confident in success, and the other two are pathetic dupes. The music is thin and dull, only suddenly, almost ritualistically gaining momentum for the final section. The scene, like much of the opera, is silly without being funny, pathetic without being sad.

The experience really brought me back, especially, to Don Giovanni. There, as Joseph Kerman argues in Opera as Drama, Mozart is not really in his perfect dramatic element, as he is in Figaro and Zauberflote. But unlike Cosi, it still inspired some absolutely glorious music. Who would guess, before hearing the opera, that a classical-era composer, and the warm, gentle, humanistic Mozart no less, could compose such utterly terrifying music as that accompanying the Don's damnation? The music holds our interest the whole way through, always taking fascinating, unexpected turns. It might not be the perfect union of music and drama that Figaro is, but it's a veritable orgy of brilliant dramatic music (kind of like Gotterdammerung is for Wagner -- that's another discussion).

Friday, January 27, 2006

Angry Sparrows in Avery Fischer

Reading Bernard Holland's review in the New York Times, I was reminded of a rather unpleasant episode during the concert of Mozart's great masses. I forgot to mention this in my original post.

As Holland writes:

"The Mass was briefly accompanied by a twitter in Fisher Hall's rafters, sounding roughly like a flock of angry sparrows. Lincoln Center attributed it to a hearing aid, although how feedback from so small a source could have swooped back and forth and at such a volume strains my limited understanding of electronics."

There is no way that was a hearing aid. Unfortunately, I've heard hearing aid feedback during a concert, and it sounds nothing like that. On the other hand, it sounded exactly like many emergency alarms that sound when an emergency door is opened. I assumed at the time that someone had ducked out of the performance and used an emergency exit close to one of the entrances to the hall. It also, as Holland notes, seemed way too loud to come from a hearing aid. If it hadn't occurred during the grand Qui Tollis section of the C minor mass and instead during, say, Et incarnatus, it would have stopped the performance, I'm sure of it.

At any rate, it's time to toss that hall out back into some mothballs, or better yet shoot it and take it out of its misery.

As an aside, when a hearing aid does go off, I'm most upset not at the pour old soul with the faded aural senses, but at the people sitting next to him who don't immediately do something about it. If next time you're at a concert, something like that is happening next to you, for heaven's sake, give the person a solid poke.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Claremont Trio

This Friday, a fantastic, immensely talented young trio will be playing a recital at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall. I'm talking about the Claremont Trio, featuring the twins Julia and Emily Bruskin and Donna Kwong. For information on the concert and program, click here.

Also, the Trio will be interviewed on WKCR by Eugene Sit on this coming Thursday afternoon show, airing 3-6 PM.

If you haven't heard their debut record, featuring the Mendelssohn trios, get it. Their first CD already deserves a place among the best recordings of these great works. It has that sparkle that Mendelssohn needs.

Gardiner and Mozart Part II

I managed to make it back up to Lincoln Center last night to see the second concert in Gardiner's Mozart tour, featuring the last three symphonies. Besides some practical scheduling problems, I was also a bit hesitant because I was so unsatisfied by Gardiner's recording of these works. That recording was surprisingly slow and soupy, more so than many modern instrument performance I knew (and liked -- it was far more dull than, for example, Karl Bohm's version), and the recessed recording sound added to this problem. My favorite recording of these works remained Christopher Hogwood's, by a wide margin.

I am happy to report Gardiner's interpretation of these works has changed dramatically for the better since he made those recordings (I think in the early '80s). The performance sizzled, it was absolutely thrilling. The phrases were gorgeously and always convincingly molded. Some fun, tasteful ornamentation, particularly noticeable in the trio of No. 39, added to the sense of joyful music-making. And of course, the incredible Jupiter finale was a gas.

In fact, the entire Jupiter symphony was played with all the players standing up (except of course for those whose instruments rest on the floor: cellists, bassists, percussionist). For an encore, they played the section of Mozart's very first symphony that features the four-note motif that begins that amazing finale (a case of a "snake biting its tail?" suggested Gardiner to the audience, quoting Brahms).

Admittedly to show off, I asked Gardiner afterwards in the Green Room, "Why didn't you bring along the Choir and play the Missa Brevis, too?" (This is the other work where this motif appears.)

Gardiner replied, "Would you rather have heard that than the last three symphonies?"

I said, "Well, no."

"Well, there you go."

I also asked him if he had any plans to re-record the late Mozart symphonies, since (I dared say) his interpretation had changed so much since the first recording. To my relief, he acknowledged that yes indeed, it had changed very much. As for recording plans, he said, "ask my wife." (His wife, Isabella, is also his manager.)

I didn't feel too badly about introducing myself to Mrs. Gardiner, who was standing right there, as we (at WKCR) had been in touch with her about a potential interview with J.E. for BachFest, an interview that unfortunately did not materialize (although Jacob plans on interviewing him in England in the Fall). She is also exceedingly nice. She informed me that Symphonies 39 and 41 will be recorded live at an upcoming concert in London on February 9th, and a limited edition of 3,000 copies will be sold immediately on Gardiner's production company's website. She said she has not gotten a chance to set up the order form on the site yet, but will do so soon. So there's a real scoop for the few lucky ones that are already reading this blog. Just leave a copy for me!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Gardiner and Mozart

Ah, another Mozart year is here. And it brings to New York, finally, John Eliot Gardiner and his terrific chorus. Sir Gardiner's work, particularly his recordings, have been among the most thrilling, illuminating, varied, and consistently excellent of any conductor since they started recording music. He took what could once be stalely called the "historically informed performance" movement, and made brilliant, exciting, gorgeous music out of it. His CD's have been a big part of my music-listening life since high school, when I first heard his recording of Figaro. But since I came to New York in 1998, this is the first time he has come to the City with his ensemble, as far as I know (he stepped in to conduct the Philharmonic in Beethoven's Ninth on New Year's Eve one year, but I was out of town). As soon as I could after Great Performers tickets went on sale, I snapped up two seats -- close to the front, of course. The concert was at Avery Fischer, after all.

The program consisted of the C Minor Mass and the Requiem. For soloists, Gardiner drew from his Monteverdi Choir, which was just fine. They were all excellent. I couldn't hear the men (Matthew Brooke and Jeremy Budd) very well in the C Minor, but I think that was just due to where they were situated versus where I was sitting (J.E. was in the way). The women were great, the second soprano (Miriam Allen) in the C Minor was especially good. Her light girlish coloratura voice danced effortlessly through the Laudamus te. And I do mean danced; maybe a bit more so here than in Gardiner's recording, the performance had a dance-like bounce to it, especially in the way the soloists phrased the ornate passages of the work. And of course the orchestra and chorus sounded terrific; we really need more bands and choruses in the U.S. that sound like this. That is, more than zero.

The only part where the performance came loose a little bit was in the first Osanna. Gardiner took it very fast, of course, and the singers -- some of them anyway -- sped up a little too much. Gardiner's interpretation has changed little since he made the recording -- the Cum Sancto Spiritu fugue was a bit more dynamic and the Benedictus was somewhat quicker. But I still feel that his approach in the grand, "high style" numbers -- the Gratias and the Qui Tollis -- is a bit too heavy. Even in big choruses like these, Mozart can't be all that somber. I actually slightly prefer Hogwood's recording for that very reason (that and the drums added to the Credo, which make that movement much more convincing... and fun). But these are quibbles, both the recording and today's performance were excellent.

No quibbles at all with the Requiem. It was one of those rare occasions when a performance had me so enthralled that I could not move and could barely breathe by the end of it. The Lux Aeterna almost brought me to tears. My heart was still racing for several minutes after the (standing) ovations ended. The occurrence of that heart-racing thing is one way I know it's been one of those truly unforgettable concert experiences. (Other such occasions have included hearing Robert Shaw conduct the Cleveland Orchestra in Beethoven's Ninth at Blossom; Murray Perahia play the Chopin Ballades at Carnegie; Renee Fleming forgive the Count in Figaro at the Met in '98 [that time, I actually did cry]; Krystian Zimmerman play the Brahms D Minor concerto at Carnegie; the London Symphony and Colin Davis do Verdi's Requiem just a few months ago... come to think of it, I've been pretty blessed). The Requiem brought new soloists to the front, still drawn from the choir (the bass Brooke was the only repeat). All four were great, and their voices blended wonderfully together in the ensemble sections. The performance was dramatic and flawless, and again the interpretation was very similar to his recording. Gardiner makes the best case possible for the Sussmayr version.

For the first time in my concert-attending career (ah, if only it were my career), I dropped by the not-green Green Room for the chance to shake Sir Gardiner's hand. And that I did, thanking him for all the joy he's given me over the years. Teri Towe was kind enough to introduce me to him. I tried to think of something to ask him, and the only thing I came up with was to ask why he had changed the layout of the chorus for certain sections of the C Minor Mass. He didn't even let me finish the sentence. "Look at the score," he calmly said (he's a very calm but firm guy, it seems). "Some of the choruses have 2 parts, others have 4..." He spoke quickly, I didn't quite get it all, but I shut my mouth. He also said he thought the Avery Fischer acoustics were not nearly as bad as people say. I can just say I feel a little bit less embarrassed, since at least we pleased this great man from across the pond. I'll keep sitting up front, though, thank you.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Maazel-ified Dvorak

This is a little late, but last Thursday I made my way to Avery Fischer Hall to hear the New York Philharmonic for the first time in a while. As usual, I made sure to get a seat right in the front (this case, second row), to avoid Avery Fischer's notorious acoustical problems. I didn't realize how long it had been until I sat down while the orchestra was warming up, saw all the familiar faces on stage, and thought, "Hey, I missed these guys." I have been to so many Philharmonic concerts in the past six years or so that I've grown accustomed to seeing those faces up there and, at least in the case of the wind players and lead string players, have even grown familiar with how they play. I think this kinship adds another dimension to the concert experience. It's really nice.

Lorin Maazel conducted. More on that a bit later.

The program opened with a predictably rousing performance of the Flying Dutchman overture. The orchestra's terrific brass section played those horn calls with great gusto. It's always a joy to hear Wagner's glorious music from up close and from a stage. In the opera house pit, obviously the music is put in its proper dramatic context, but you're not exposed as vividly to all the detail in Wagner's sound world. Great fun.

Following the classic programming plan of "short orchestral piece-concerto-big symphony," the next work on the program was the Walton Violin Concerto, featuring the Canadian James Ehnes as the soloist. It was the first time I had ever heard the piece, so I can't really comment on the performance, but I really enjoyed the work. It was surprisingly pretty, perhaps sometimes verging on the precious, but quite enjoyable. I'd like to see how it holds up under repeated listenings. As usual with Violin Concertos, the violin tended to get lost in the tutti. This should be alleviated in a recording. The advent of records was the best thing that ever happened to the violin concerto; it's as if composers who wrote in this formal somehow knew this technology was coming. Otherwise, it's hard to explain why they wrote them, the format just doesn't work that well in live performance. I can't think of a single violin concerto that could count as one of that composer's great works (I don't think Paganini wrote any great works). One possible exception could be the Saint-Saens no. 3.

After intermission came Dvorak's great Symphony no. 7, a brilliantly taut work inspired by Brahms' Third, but laced with Dvorak's Slavic sense of rip-roarin' fun. Here's where Maazel characteristically stepped into the fore. As is well-known, Maazel has a tendency to manipulate scores to an irritatingly great degree, inserting pauses, tempo changes, and other means of emphasizing Great Moments. Lorin, we know when the Great Moments are, we don't need you to point them out to us; and in fact, your manipulations make them less great. Maazel made his presence known almost immediately. After the low strings introduce the intense main theme, Maazel had the winds play their answer at a much slower clip. It was jarring and unconvincing, yet obvious what he wanted to say. "Note," screams the maestro, "how lyrical this same theme sounds slightly altered and played by the winds!!"

The worst part of the performance was the slow movement, which lurched and halted at every turn. It was fragmented and episodic, lacked a sense of flow. The playing was hesitant, as if the players needed to wait for Maazel's thumbs-up before starting any phrase... which they probably did. The first three notes of the scherzo were drawn out, a more witty and less annoying gimmick: the dancer holds his leg up and winks before diving into his number. The last movement was the best part, Maazel seemed more willing there to just let the music go.

In general, Maazel's interventionist style works much better in late Romantic and 20th Century works. For example, his performance of Bruckner's Seventh last year was absolutely thrilling, he held my interest at every note and drew a stupendous, rich sound from the orchestra. His Wagner (see above) and Strauss performances are also reliably enjoyable. These composers provide a broader canvas, leaving room for Maazel to play. And he is an excellent musician, so once allowed room, what he does with that space is usually convincing and exciting. On the other end, even he refrains from manipulating non-Beethoven Classical scores in the same way. Performances of Mozart's Prague Symphony and Haydn's Creation were an absolute pleasure. Buyer beware, however, for anything in between, from Beethoven to Brahms to Dvorak. Interesting, how in this respect he is the opposite of Masur, who was at his best in this repertoire, whereas his Bruckner, for instance, (in my opinion) tended to be ponderous and dull and his Mozart, well, non-existent (as far as I can remember, he left Mozart completely to guest conductors, especially Colin Davis).

As for Dvorak's Seventh, I cherish a recording that has been the subject of some scorn from reviewers and was out of the catalogue for many years before re-appearing recently: James Levine's performance with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival. The recording is very close and, at times, even a bit harsh, but I think this works perfectly for Dvorak. It enhances the folksy character and the dance element that is so important in Dvorak, but at the same time gives great weight and power to the Brahmsian tragedy in this particular work. The performance simply sizzles. The magnificent climax of the first movement explodes in your ears; I can't listen to it without jumping out of my seat, goosebumps and all. The same goes for the Ninth Symphony, which comes coupled with the Seventh. Check it out.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Angela Hewitt Interview Transcript

This interview was conducted on December 1, 2005 over the phone. Ms. Hewitt was at her home in Italy, and I was at the WKCR studios. The interview was taped and aired on December 31 during Bach Fest (of course) on WKCR.

JT: [Intro] Why Bach? What led you to focus so much on Bach from very early in your career?

AH: Well it was there at home. My father, as you just said, was organist at the cathedral, so of course he played all those wonderful organ works by Bach and did play them marvelously I must say. My mother, who was my first piano teacher, had been his student, so I went to church every Sunday and heard him play, and I just remember those early years very well and what an impression Bach’s music made on me. And when I did start playing the piano at age three, I think by four I was already playing the easiest pieces of Bach, and being taught it very well I must say, too, with the right phrasing and how to articulate and all those little details that make such a difference. So I just loved right away from the beginning what was in his music and the rhythm of it all, and the themes, so much. So I certainly grew up in the right household to love Bach.

JT: That’s a very authentic baroque story, growing up with father who was the town organist.

AH: [laughing] Right.

JT: Bach himself studied first with a relative, although I think it was his uncle.

AH: That’s right. He certainly came from a musical family.

JT: And created a musical family.

AH: That’s right. So all those things, and also all the other things I did as a child, you need two or three of them: violin, recorder, classical ballet. They all sort of helped with my interpretation of baroque music. Violin, of course – the keyboard concertos that I just recorded, two of them I first played on the violin, and then later learned them on the piano. Recorder gave me great insights into baroque ornamentation. I had a wonderful teacher for that. And singing also, I sang in my father’s choir, so that was great for getting to know about part playing, singing the inner voices. And then ballet of course gave me the sense of the dance, which is so necessary in Bach, because his music is really all dance, such as how to express rhythm, which I think I really got from my ballet training.

JT: So what made you choose to play the piano, as opposed to, say, the harpsichord?

AH: Well. I never considered anything else, really. It seemed natural to me to play Bach on the piano. Of course, I knew that it was written for the harpsichord. And I remember I had one for a year in my bedroom because somebody went away on sabbatical and left us one, and I fooled around with it. But I was never really taken by the sound of the harpsichord, I much prefer the sound of the piano. And I could see that if you played it properly from the beginning, it sounded great. There’s nothing better for singing those wonderful melodies, melodic lines that Bach writes, for distinguishing the different voices. I never had any complexes about playing it on the piano at all. So it wasn’t a conscious decision, it just seemed natural. Of course, I knew there were people who thought it was a no-no to do that [laughing], but that never really influenced me, because I always felt good about what I was doing.

JT: Well even if there’s not a moral issue there, there are some things that the harpsichord can do that the piano can’t. For instance, the higher notes have a different quality than the lower which helps vary voices; you can vary the stops between the hands; it has a sharper plucking sound. Were you ever attracted to that?

AH: Well, I wouldn’t say that there’s a lot a harpsichord can do that a piano can’t. I mean, it can be noisier, sure. Having done a lot of Couperin… this is important, actually. Couperin’s music is actually more idiomatic for the harpsichord than Bach. Take the Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance. There’s no music that’s more abstract than that. It can be played by anything; a three-voice fugue could be played by three string instruments, by three wind instruments, could be sung by three voices. It’s such pure music, it’s not really idiomatic for the keyboard at all. So that’s why I don’t see a problem. The harpsichord, yes, you can sometimes double the octaves, but you can also sometimes do that on a piano, as I do for instance in the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue [in C Minor the last time the subject comes in in the bass], I double it in octaves. I mean you can do that, which you could do on the organ pedals as well. I just find that the advantages of playing it on the piano outweigh the disadvantages.

JT: That’s a great point. Maybe that’s why his early works, like the Toccatas, are the ones that sound best on the harpsichord, while his later and more abstract works tend to sound better on the piano.

AH: Perhaps, sure. They are more idiomatic, all the arpeggios and stuff. So yes, they do sound quite different on the harpsichord, sure.

JT: Many have observed that your great genius in your Bach work is that you use all the dynamics and everything available in the piano and yet your Bach playing never sounds anything but Bachian.

AH: Right.

JT: Contrast that with, for instance, when I heard Daniel Barenboim play the Well-Tempered at Carnegie Hall, and it was a thrilling performance, but it was very much a Romantic performance,

AH: Exactly

JT: It didn’t really sound like Bach. So how is it that you do that?

AH: Just by using musical intelligence to imagine how it was… I mean, forget the harpsichord, and you look at Bach, so many of the keyboard works are very orchestral or vocal. So that’s really what’s more in my mind than the harpsichord. First of all, I play with very little sustaining pedal. One of the things I really concentrate on, something a lot of pianists do somewhat, but in my opinion not enough, is that all of the legato is done with the fingers. My fingering is very complicated, but it allows me to play cleanly and smoothly without using the pedal. I never rely on my foot to play something legato, if I can help it. I will turn my fingers and my hands inside out to do this [laughing]. So that takes an awful lot of work at the beginning, but that I have done. And also in the articulation, very important. And this perhaps comes a lot from my violin playing. Because I don’t think pianists think enough about what the bowings would be on a stringed instrument. I mean, when we were doing the concertos – and you can hear this, I think – all my parts are marked, I marked them so that the bowings imitate what I’m doing on the keyboard and vice versa. That’s a very important study and a very important part of Bach interpretation.

JT: And you mentioned before ornamentation. Using that also, rather than dynamics and pedals, lots of trills…

AH: Yeah, to get it as close as possible to what it would have been on a harpsichord. You don’t have to do trills on the piano for a long time to get the note to sustain like you had to on the harpsichord. So you don’t have to do that on much. Several harpsichordists who have heard me play say that if I sat down and played the same way on a harpsichord, I would really sound like a harpsichordist a lot of the time [laughing]. I thin it just has to do with the clarity of the articulation mainly.

JT: Yeah, focusing on the space between the notes rather than the amplification of the notes themselves.

AH: Right, sure. Even in something, like the E-Flat Minor prelude from Book I, which is that wonderful, slow sarabande, where most pianists would pedal on every beat, I just don’t use it all. All the legato, even the repeated chords in the left hands, I do just with the fingers, hardly lifting the notes from the keys to repeat them.

JT: So while we’re on the topic of instruments, you recently did a performance in Seattle. I read that you had a piano taken all the way from Salt Lake City to Seattle for the performance.

AH: [laughing] That’s right, a Fazioli, yes.

JT: So what is it about that piano?

AH: Well, the Fazioli piano in general I think is a fabulous instrument. They’re made here in Italy just outside of Venice. Mr. Fazioli only makes a hundred a year, so there aren’t a lot of them around, so that’s why we had to bring one from Salt Lake City to Seattle, because that was the closest dealer who had one and could service one for me. I own two of them. I have one here in my house in Italy, which I record on now, I take it out to do my recordings, it’s a fabulous piano. They have great clarity, they have a great range of sound. They have a different sound. Some people who are so used to hearing the traditional Steinway sound might not like it, or it might take them a while to get used to it. But it’s such a colored sound, that I feel there’s so much more of a variety that I can get. And just the responsiveness of the action is quite amazing, every little ounce that I do comes out, and also I can do it with great ease. It’s not a clumsy piano at all. They don’t say it’s the Ferrari of the piano world for nothing. I mean, I’ve never driven a Ferrari, I wouldn’t know [laughing].

JT: That’s probably pretty key in something as tricky as the Goldberg Variations.

AH: Sure, sure. So I do play them often. I have an Italian tour in December of seven concerts, I’m playing it in two different places. I just also like a bit of variety. If you play the same type of piano all the time, it can get a little boring, so it’s nice to have a little spice in life. But I do find that the Fazioli is wonderful, especially for Bach.

JT: Do you think the audiences notice the difference in general?

AH: They do. Well certainly a lot of them told me they do, they like it very much.

JT: Do you have particular Bach works that have been your favorite to perform in concert or to record?

AH: I know that my favorite Bach piece to perform in public is the Goldberg Variations. I just played it at the famous Lucerne Festival this week. I played it for my debut in Berlin also. It’s just a wonderful experience I think for everybody involved; for me, although I’ve played it for over 30 years now, I never get tired of it and always am finding new things. For the audience, for those who know it, they’re interested to hear another interpretation, or those who don’t know it are just completely bowled over by it. And it does have this, I think, wonderful spiritual power that can really, in a good performance, lift us very high up. And there are not many pieces that have that to such a degree. So I love playing the Goldbergs. But I must say, playing as I did in Miller Theater at Columbia the other night, complete Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier— which is a marathon and you have to be pretty masochistic to do it—is also a wonderful experience. In a way, it’s more demanding on the audience, not just because of length, but in the concentration it takes. But also very very satisfying, because there’s no greater music really.

JT: One thing I’ve found in listening to the Well-Tempered Clavier in performance is that it’s more demanding to the ear. It’s not just very long, but it’s not as integrated a work as the Goldberg Variations. Do you think that’s true?

AH: Well, you have 24 preludes and fugues, 48 pieces there, all of which are very different, so it’s not integrated at all, except that it’s a prelude and fugue in every key. Although I do present them in groups of four, I think each group of four makes a very satisfying whole. But no, it’s not like the Goldberg, where you have the same bass-, the same harmonies that repeat in each variation over and over again, and that gives it a tremendous unity. The only unity in playing the 24 preludes and fugues is that you’ve played them all, so you’ve gone through all the keys. But still, it’s wondrous what he does, and the variety that there is. But yes, it is quite demanding, certainly more demanding on me, playing it from memory. The Goldberg seems like a walk in the park afterwards, to tell you the truth, after playing the Well-Tempered Clavier [laughing].

JT: Do you ever play Book II in concert?

AH: Oh yes, I’ve done Book II in concert. Actually, in the 2007-2008 season, we’re planning a world tour where I will present the 48 preludes and fugues, both books, in two concerts, all over the world. And I will hopefully be doing it in New York, I think at Zankel. And in many different places I haven’t been, South Africa, South America, in London of course. Anyway, really a world tour, presenting Book I on a Friday, Book II on a Sunday matinee perhaps, because it’s much longer, or perhaps more spaced apart with a master class in each city. Something like that, but really, we’re going to make a thing of it. It’s going to be very demanding on myself, but- I did it in 2000, in the Bach anniversary year, and it was the biggest challenge of my life. But I feel it’s worth it, it’s something I want to do.

JT: Book 2 was written much later, and is more complicated

AH: It is.

JT: And a lot of people would say a little less warm. So do you have a different approach to it in general than you do for Book I?

AH: No, I don’t have a different approach, but the music is a bit different. Especially the last twelve can be very complicated, but I’ve worked quite hard on those. And also worked hard to get the biggest contrasts, to get the most interest out of each of them. Some people play those last twelve so slowly, all of them, that you just die. So I’ve really tried to put as much life as possible in them, and when you do actually, they’re fabulous fabulous pieces. But it took me a long time to find that, so I think some people just don’t get that far [laughing]. And also they’re terribly difficult to play technically. Book I perhaps is easier to play in concert, because it’s “only” two hours of music, whereas Book II is two and a half hours of music. So it’s a big thing. So as I told my Italian agent, I don’t start a concert of Book II at nine o’clock at night, they have to start a little earlier [big laugh].

JT: Going back to the Goldberg Variations, in performing this and even more so in recording it, you have a daunting task of distinguishing yourself from just about every other major keyboard artist since Glenn Gould, because just about everybody records this piece. So how did you confront this challenge?

AH: Again, I didn’t actually listen to a lot of performances. I mean, everybody records this piece… well, not everybody plays Bach, but certainly yes, all the major Bach players have. But I didn’t obsessively listen to all the recordings out there. No, I had my own way of playing it, and that was what I was most interested in, just going to the score and finding my own way. When I did record it, I had already played the piece for twenty-five years, and it had changed immensely since when I learned it at age sixteen until then. What happened was, we went into the studio, and we had five days to record it. This is true. On the first day, I played it through, and I discussed it with my producer, what we wanted to change. On the second day we did the first ten [variations], on the third day we did the middle ten, and on the fourth day we did the last ten. So by dinnertime on the fourth day, we had it all covered. I went for a bit of a massage on my shoulders, and we had a nice Japanese meal. And then we went back to the hall—Henry Wood Hall in London where we record. And my producer—who always knows when I’m playing my best or can do better—said, play the opening aria again, because I think we can have it better. So I did, and then he said, you know, now you’re playing really well, why don’t you keep going. And it was a quarter past eleven at night, I said, you’re crazy! And he said, they’re not going to kick us out of here. And it’s true, they don’t. So between a quarter past eleven and a quarter to one in the morning, I get the best performance of my life of the Goldberg Variations until then. And I would say 80% of that one performance is what you hear on the record. And it was also very different from what I had done previously in many cases. We had worked so hard taping and listening, and then changing things, improving things; we had worked so hard over those four days, that then I felt free to just play it. Plus my tuner had changed something in the piano mechanism to make the trills a little easier, which always helped. So it really just flowed out. And then we had to do a little bit of patching on the fifth day for a few stumbles here and there, but we couldn’t actually use anything we had done on the first four days, because it had been so different. So that’s a nice story, and absolutely true, about what is on my Goldbergs CD. A late-night performance.

JT: Reminiscent of the original performance, played to help the count fall asleep…

AH: In a way! That’s right, I had an audience of three, my producer, my piano tuner and his wife. So I was playing for people, too, which is when I often play my best.

JT: Yeah, and often studio recordings can have an overly contrived feel, like there was too much effort, but it sounds like you really simulated a live performance.

AH: Yeah, that’s what it is, for sure.

JT: And you haven’t just recorded the Goldberg Variations and the Well-Tempered, you’ve recorded all of Bach’s works for solo keyboard, just an incredible accomplishment. So what did you learn from the journey? How did your view of Bach’s output evolve over the course of this entire incredible endeavor?

AH: I learned a huge, huge, huge amount, an incredible amount. I purposely started with the easier pieces, the two- and three-part inventions, and the French Suites, and the middle preludes. In each recording, I gained in knowledge, gained in experience. And of course playing it all in concert, too, as I did, while I went on. I didn’t just record them, I played them all in concert, and from memory. So throughout the years—and I think you can hear that, if you listen to the later recordings and the earlier ones—there is quite a difference, more dynamic contrasts, more distinct voicing between the parts, the ornamentation also is better. At the time I did every record, at that time I felt it was the best I could give. But I did learn a huge amount. Also, how Bach himself developed! That was the most fascinating thing, too. And now having done Couperin, to see what he got from French harpsichord composers. When you play something like the 8th [] from Couperin, the one in B Minor, and then you learn Bach’s French Overture, there are so many similarities, they must have known each other’s piece. So it’s very fascinating there. I really have come out of it so enriched, not just emotionally and intellectually, but technically as well. It has hugely developed my technique. That’s one of the reasons Bach wrote it, to get those fourth fingers as strong as the thumb! And the second and third finger! And I know that has happened, because in some pieces that I played when I was younger and then got to at the end of the cycle, I didn’t have to use fingerings that avoided using the fourth and fifth fingers as much. Those fingers are now very strong and very even. Plus, I hate to think what it’s done— well, not hate to think, I always say to myself it would have been interesting to measure my brain at the beginning of the cycle and then at the end. After having memorized all these thousands and thousands of notes, to see how my brain has changed would be fun to know.

JT: Has your approach or interpretation changed since you’ve recorded them? Musicians sometimes express displeasure with their recordings later.

AH: I still like what’s out there, but I know there are things I could do better. And even in the Well-Tempered Clavier—I recorded it in ‘97 or ‘98 I think, so that’s already quite a while away—and I would like to some day do it again, also in the new surround sound technology. We have all of the CD’s, I think from the Goldberg on, we have in surround sound, but not the ones before. But I would like to do the Well-Tempered again. I feel that it’s such a huge work, and my style has grown since I recorded it. So I will some day. What I am going to do, in 2007, or at least have available by 2007, is a DVD on my approach to Bach on the piano, explaining to people all the things one has to think about it, how to learn a fugue, because there are people wanting to know all those things. So I do want to put that down on DVD.

JT: So let’s talk a little more about influences. Obviously there’s your father. But what other performers have influenced you? Glenn Gould is also Canadian, is there a connection there?

AH: We used to see him on television. I remember the first time I saw him, I ran into the room and I saw this person playing with his fingers up by his nose, and I said, “Who’s that kook?” to my parents. I must have been four or five years old. We listened to him, but we never really imitated him, because he was so unique, and his style really only suited his personality, and certainly not mine. So I can really say that he was not a great influence on me. I think the fact that we’re both Canadian and play Bach is more a coincidence than anything else. Although one of my teachers in Toronto, Myrtle Guerrero, was of course the widow of Gould’s only teacher, Alberto Guerrero. But that was as close as the connection came. My teacher whom you mentioned before, Jean-Paul Sevilla, the French pianist who came to teach in Canada, he was the one I first heard perform the Goldberg Variations live in recital. And that really impressed me. So he adored Bach and always made sure I had some in my repertoire. So that was an influence for sure. And then I suppose the next big influence was when I went to live in London in 1985, and all the early music people were very—well, they all still are active, but especially active then. You know, Norrington and Pinnock and Gardiner. And I used to go to a lot of their concerts, I worked with some of them, and I did get a lot from them. Nothing terribly new; they talked a lot about articulation and phrasing, but that as I said any good musician should know anyway, and I was taught when I was young. But it was more their sense of joy, the way they brought out the dance in Bach, the enthusiasm they had for it. I thought it certainly didn’t have to be boring! So that just sort of underlined what I had already felt, and I dared to also be a bit more extrovert in that, in expressing that joy. So that was also a big influence on me. And then what I learned the most from really were the recording session days, listening to myself in the studio in the most ideal conditions, in a wonderful hall with a wonderful piano, with wonderful recording equipment. And with my record producer, Ludger Bockenhoff, who has tremendous ears, and really helped me extraordinarily in getting the best interpretations that we could. So those have been, I must say, the most major influences on my Bach playing.

JT: I was going to ask you about the period performance explosion, what influence it has had on you and how you feel about it. It sounds like that has had a significant influence on you.

AH: Well it did, as I said, especially in those years, the middle eighties I would say. And I really took from them what I felt applied to me the most. Also in Beethoven, I went to all the concerts of Norrington’s first Beethoven series before he recorded all those records in ’87, ’88. So I took all that and applied it to what I was doing, and yes, it did change the way I play, for sure. I think there is room for both though; there is room for that, and for the traditional interpretations. But I don’t think one can play Mozart and Beethoven now without a regard for what they’ve done, or if you do I don’t think it’s right.

JT: One thing I think you do have in common with that, with those conductors and that movement, is that you bring out that dance and that freshness in Bach.

AH: Exactly.

JT: Like what you talked about, in performances of the second half of Book II, where the performances had gotten so slow and so over-romanticized, that it got sluggish and boring, and your recordings are always the opposite of that.

AH: That’s right, that’s right. That’s important… the energy.

JT: Especially, say, the keyboard toccatas of Bach, which are so under-recorded and so under-appreciated, and part of the problem is that they are really dance-like, fun pieces but had gotten so lugubrious. And your record did a lot to alleviate that.

AH: Oh, good. Good, good [laughing].

JT: You mentioned Beethoven. At the risk of straying from our BachFest theme, you have your first Beethoven CD coming out soon, is that right?

AH: I do. I’ve recorded it, we’re just doing the editing now, and it will be out I think next fall, in September. But yes, I’m quite thrilled with that. Three sonatas, the Appassionata, the Op. 10, no. 3 in D Major, and the Op. 7 in E-Flat. And I’ll be doing another one of these about this time next year. Again, I feel that I have a little bit different approach from most pianists in playing that repertoire, than a lot of pianists, so I want to apply the same type of things that I put in my Bach playing to Beethoven, and we’ll see what comes out.

JT: Is your unique approach to Beethoven related to, or a result of, your experience with Bach directly?

AH: Of course, of course. I mean, Beethoven was influenced by Bach, they say he played all the 48 preludes and fugues as a kid. So yes, I do think so. So many people play, not just Beethoven but the piano, always playing the hands at the same dynamic. If they play mezzoforte with the right hand, they’re playing mezzoforte with the left hand. Whereas no, there are so many different voices, so many different parts, so many different things going on.

JT: Rubinstein did that really well.

AH: Sure, sure. So that I’d like to bring out. And also just the energy, the energy. The craziness of it, too. I remember when I lived in France, from 1978 to 1985, there was a tradition of playing Beethoven that, to me, it sounded as though the more boring it was, the more “Olympian” they described it as. But I couldn’t understand. I thought, is Beethoven this boring? And then I discovered it didn’t have to be that way. So I think the amount of energy you put in it is very important.

JT: Yeah, I think we really have something to look forward to then.

AH: [laughing] Good, good.

JT: One thing you like to do is write your own liner notes. Your notes to your Well-Tempered Clavier recording are especially impressive, extensive and detailed. Do you do a lot of writing on music? Is that something you feel really adds to the performance itself?

AH: Well I do like to do it. Outside of my liner notes, I don’t have much time at the moment to write anything else. I do book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, which I enjoy doing, too. I’ll soon have to write the notes for my Beethoven record, so that will be a challenge. But I do enjoy it. I mean, I learn a lot from it too, and I want to give my own take on the pieces to my public. I think they appreciate that, not to have just the same old historical sort of bla bla bla. So I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy the actual process of writing. My mother was an English teacher, so I was taught how to write decently. But it does take an awful lot of time, and it’s hard to practice and write on the same day. So I usually have to put some days aside where I just write.

JT: So when’s your next trip to New York?

AH: My next time is in February, on the 24th and 26th I play in the Chamber Music at Lincoln Center series, a French program, the Debussy Cello Sonata, with Daniel Muller-Schott, the Ravel Trio, and the Franck Quintet, with members of the Society, so that will be great.

JT: It seems like your focus so far in your career has so far been Bach and French music.

AH: Well, I play everything else as well, I play all the Mozart concertos, all the Beethoven, but yeah, I suppose I am known for those two things for sure. And I have a Chabrier disc coming out next month, in January, the Chabrier for solo piano, which are wonderful. I love French music, I lived in Paris for seven years, and as you said, my teacher was French. So I was very much steeped in the French idiom, and I love it. So that’s a nice program.

JT: Great, we look forward to that. Thank you so much, Angela, for taking the time to talk to us.

AH: Thank you, Jonathan. It’s been my pleasure.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Hilary Hahn Interview Transcript

The following interview was conducted live by phone during WKCR's BachFest, on December 27, 2005.
(Sorry it's taking me a while to post these, this transcription is tedious work. I'm a pretty fast typist, but not fast enough. The Hewitt interview is coming soon.)

JT = some jerk; HH = Hilary Hahn.

JT: So why did you choose Bach to record your first record?

HH: Well it’s interesting, the first recording that I did for Sony was Bach and the first one that I did for Deutsche Grammophon was Bach, with no Bach in between as far as recording goes. But I’ve always played a lot of Bach. I actually did the Brandenburg Concertos at Lincoln Center one winter. I think I was 15 or 16 or something like that, and that was right around the time I was going to start recording the first album, the Bach stuff. I felt like I’ve played so much Bach from the beginning, that I might as well make Bach recordings (laughs).

JT: What’s special about Bach to you?

HH: Maybe this isn’t accurate, but to me it seems that Bach is actually one of the most romantic composers. A lot of his music has a lot of depth to it. You can interpret it any way you want, and you can really pour yourself into it, or you can hold yourself back. There’s a kind of a balance there that you have to strike. You can’t just go all out and have it sound like Bach still. But at the same time you can really find a lot in it every time you come back to it. So there’s a definite emotional connection for people who play it, and the audience as well gets a lot of variety as far as the interpretations that they’re presented with.

JT: Yeah, you certainly take a very expressive style in your Bach playing. I know you value very much the history of violin playing, the old masters. Who are some of your big influences in your playing, especially for Bach?

HH: For solo Bach I was influenced by Henryk Szeryng and Arthur Grumiaux. I listened to their recordings a lot very early on. Milstein as well, for Bach, he’s a great person to listen to. And I also listened in general a lot to Kreisler and Heifetz and Elman and a lot of other people from that generation. My teacher, Jascha Brodsky, was familiar with all of them.

JT: Talking to other performers, Angela Hewitt said she barely listened to any recordings of the Goldberg Variations before she played them. Other performers have told me they don’t like to listen to recordings first, because it can distort their interpretation. But my impression is that you do listen to recordings and that it actually helps you with your interpretations.

HH: Right. Coming into a recording session myself, I don’t tend to listen to other recordings, because I need to make sure I have it straight in my head, what I want to do. But when I’m learning a piece, it helps to listen to different recordings to hear how the different – well, with Bach, it’s solo – but still, it helps to hear how the different instruments interact, and to get a feel for the pacing of the piece, and how it sounds when one person plays it versus when another person plays it, then you get an idea of what the options are. There are some pieces that have a tradition of interpretation, and if you do a certain thing because you don’t know any better, it’s not acceptable. You can do anything you want, but there are certain pieces that have certain ways of being played that you have to start from in order to sound like you know what you’re doing. But in other pieces, you can just start from scratch, and whatever you come up with is fine. So it really depends on how much variety there is in the interpretations, and how much is considered standard.

JT: How did you find that situation in terms of the Bach Violin Concerti? Was there a lot of tradition bearing down on you?

HH: Well, with anything that now has performance practice traditions, I think that kind of frees you up in a way. Because there already, when you start your own interpretation, are so many different possibilities. You can really choose anything you want. With Bach, there are certain things that don’t work structurally, but they have nothing to do with tradition, they have to do with the structure of the piece, the phrasing you can come up with in that structure. For example, sometimes certain accents wouldn’t make any sense in the music, or certain tempi just don’t feel right, so you really can’t force yourself to do something that doesn’t feel right. With Bach it’s more that it has to work as an interpretation, but as far as which one you choose or how you go about your interpretation, there are a lot of options.

JT: In terms of tradition, obviously each violinist puts his own stamp on the work. But at this point, there are also two broad camps, the Heifetzes and the Milsteins on the one hand, and the period performance explosion on the other. How has the period performance movement influenced you, if at all?

HH: Well, I think there’s a third category, which is sort of a combination. Because there are people who are on the extremes of both, people who make a career out of knowing the traditional way that things should be played, and they’re extremely good at it. And then there are other people that like that kind of style, but don’t really want to go all the way into that, with the baroque instruments and everything like that. So they play in a more historically informed way but on modern instruments. And there are people who just throw all that out and do whatever they feel like [laughing]. And I think I’m kind of between the last 2 categories I mentioned, not really striving to sound like a historically informed interpretation, but at the same time I don’t want to disregard what is evident from the music. And there are certain things in the research of original performance that are very helpful for someone like me. I’m not trying to do only them, but I am trying to respect what the composer intended and how the composer might have expected it to be performed, in things like ornamentation and other stuff. I don’t want to do something from another era, in other words.

JT: Yeah, for instance you didn’t record the [Bach Violin Concertos] with the full forces of, say, the Berlin Philharmonic, you recorded them with a chamber orchestra [the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra], if not on original instruments, more scaled to the forces of Bach’s time. And with a harpsichord continuo.

HH: Yeah, exactly, I wanted to record it with a chamber orchestra, with as small an orchestra as possible.

JT: How did you get hooked up with this particular ensemble, the LA Chamber Orchestra?

HH: Jeffrey Kahane, used to conduct in Santa Rosa, California. He may still do that, I don’t remember. But I worked with him a lot there. He’s also a really good pianist, and I know him from various musical experiences. So he seemed like a good person to record the Bach with. And the LA Chamber Orchestra was… actually, Sony arranged that recording, and then the contract, when we were renegotiating for the second contract, just didn’t work out. So Deutsche Grammophon took over what Sony had arranged. They didn’t have to, that was really nice of them to do. And the way Sony had set it up was, they were comfortable recording with the LA Chamber Orchestra, and I had wanted to record with a chamber orchestra. And there was Jeffrey, directing the L.A. group, so it all just all worked out really well. I think one reason Sony had an agreement with them was there was some kind of financial thing. American orchestras are really expensive to record with, but they had some sort of financial arrangement that worked for Sony. So that was nice. I didn’t want to record without a conductor, I wanted a conductor to take responsibility for certain things, in the interpretation and in recording sessions and things like that. So that ruled out some of the other chamber orchestras that Sony would have considered. So it all just kind of came together nicely. The musicians were really quick on the uptake, because that particular group has a lot of people who also play soul music. And they’re incredibly good musicians, because you have to be really quick to play soul music well, because you just don’t get any rehearsal. And so I knew they would be flexible as to whatever we decided to do interpretively, and it just made a lot of sense.

JT: Have you ever played a baroque violin?

HH: No, I haven’t, not because I don’t want to, but just because the situation hasn’t arisen. You can’t just pick it up, you need someone to talk you through it, explain things. And you need to spend time trying to figure out how the sound would have been produced. So I don’t want to go in and say, oh, I played one for five minutes. Yeah, if the situation arose, I would be curious, but I just haven’t been in the right context yet.

JT: With a lot of the recordings you’ve made since your original Bach record, you’ve paired a classical or romantic concerto, like the Beethoven and Brahms, with a 20th Century work. You didn’t do that this time [in the Bach Concerto record]. Was that simply because the Bach concertos conveniently filled up an entire CD?

HH: Yeah, that pretty much is it. I wanted to do the oboe and violin double concerto which isn’t done very often. Once you start dividing something up that could have been recorded in one album, you have to make several projects out of it. And the projects are not self-contained. For example, if I were to record 2 of the Bach concertos along with some other major work, I would have to record something else to fill out the remaining 2-piece disc. So it’s tricky. I thought, I want to record them all anyway, so I might as well put them on the same album.

JT: You mentioned the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, and there’s also the Concerto for Two Violins that we just heard. How was it different for you performing concertos for multiple soloists?

HH: I think it’s fun. I’m actually working with Jaime Laredo right now, because we’re playing the Bach Double and I’m playing something else with him conducting tomorrow night [December 28, 2005] at Carnegie with the New York String Seminar. And he’s playing the first violin part in the Bach Double and I’m playing the second. So it’s fun, because I used to take lessons with him. We did that about ten years ago, and now we get to do it again. It’s neat, because it’s a good chance to work with other people in a very decisive situation. As soloists, you have to know what you want to do. You can’t say, “Oh, well let’s see if this works or that works.” You have to go into rehearsal with a tempo, a basic structure in mind, and all of that. In chamber music, you have more rehearsal time and more flexibility in the rehearsal time that you’re given. With orchestra, it’s like chamber music meets the efficiency of an orchestra. So it is different from just playing a duet.

JT: Do you feel you have to change your playing when playing with other soloists?

HH: Oh yeah. I mean of course, it’s only fair. Everyone alters their playing for the other people. It also happens in regular concertos. I have a basic idea of what I want to do, but then I change the details according to what the conductor or the orchestra is inclined to do. And sometimes those details make for a large change overall, and that’s fine, too. But you do have to have an idea of what it is you’re trying to do, but within that you do have a lot of flexibility, so it’s only fair that everyone be flexible.

JT: One interesting choice in this recording is that the tempi are very fast. I mean that in praise, I love fast. Was that a decision made by you or by the conductor, or some combination?

HH: Well, it was more my thing. It’s different for recordings, when people are going to see that as your definitive interpretation. From one concert to the next, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot whether it’s this way or that way, as long as you feel comfortable. But for recording, that’s how people are going to think you hear the piece. So you really have to decide what it is you want to do at that point in time. And I wouldn’t of course force anything that someone didn’t want to do. But it was important to me to try to maintain those tempi. I was basically trying to come up with tempo relations within each piece. I couldn’t define what they are now, because it’s been a while. But I came up with things that would separate each piece from the one that preceded it and the one that followed it. That’s one trick of recording an album of all the same composer, you have to make each piece sound different. And if you take each movement individually and just think about what works for that particular moment, then you can run into a situation where you have just a whole bunch of movements recorded, and yet they don’t sound like they’re related to each other or differentiated from each other. So I was trying to come up with certain tempo relationships between the movements that would make sense as a whole but also work individually. And I wound up having some of the movements be rather brisk and other movements were slower than people play. And I tend to feel comfortable taking quick movements quickly and slower movements more spread out. I don’t like to average it so that they sound kind of the same.

JT: Yeah, I think that contrast really works well.

HH: I think it’s important, because the music is so clean and lively, so I don’t think it suffers from a quick tempo.

JT: So just to clarify, do you think that relationship is important just between the movement within a piece, or also between the pieces? Did you choose the order of the works as they appeared on the CD?

HH: Yeah, I chose the order. The order was just what sounded best back to back. Because some pieces sound better back to back than others, and some pieces sound similar back to back and then you can’t have something sounding really similar and then really different. So we were going for some kind of consistency in how the pieces ran into each other. Yeah, it was too complicated to do tempo relationships for the entire album [laughing], so I just stuck to each piece. I’ve played the double in the past week in another concert and now I’m working on it with Jaime, and the tempi are really different even between those two concerts. It’s just because sometimes you settle into one tempo and sometimes you settle into another, and it depends on the other person playing as well.

JT: What are the differences for you between performing on stage and recording?

HH: Well, performing on stage you have an audience there. And that makes a big difference because you can just feel that they’re there and they’re definitely there to receive the music that you’re putting out, so that makes a big difference psychologically. With recording, you do things over and over again, so that is another big difference. Performing, you play it once through. Recording, you have a certain amount of time to get it and that’s that. Once you finish that day, that’s all you have to work with. So there’s a certain amount of time pressure but a need to keep things fresh, so that the takes don’t start to sound the same and tired and all of that. So it’s just a different approach. I have to approach recording from the end perspective. I have to always keep in mind what I want it to sound like in the end and what will work well on the recording. So I can’t be playing like I do in a big hall, when a microphone is right in front of me, because a violin sounds different up close than it does in the distance. And I can’t just play and forget what I’ve played, because I’m going to have to do it again and improve it for the next take, so there’s a certain amount of keeping track of things that’s involved in recording sessions. But in both circumstances you have to be flexible on the spot, and if someone else tries something different musically or tempo-wise at any particular point, you have to be able to adjust to that, if it sounds right and it sounds interesting. So yeah, spontaneity and flexibility are very important. Playing for an audience is an important thing to keep in mind in the recording sessions, where you don’t have anyone listening out in the hall, because a tiny extra noise, someone moving their foot on the floor or whatever, would show up in the recording and ruin a take. So when I’m in a recording session I think of all the people listening at home or in their cars or wherever it is that they’ll be hearing it, so that’s my audience. I don’t record without an audience, it’s just that they’re not right there with me.

JT: Have you done most of your recordings in studios? Many recordings are made in a hall, even if there’s no audience.

HH: Yeah, a lot of mine have been in halls. I actually haven’t recorded anything in a studio, except for non-classical recordings, that’s different. Or radio broadcasts, where you play something through and then you do the interview, and that’s of course in a studio. The Bach solo album was in a concert hall above a savings bank in Troy, NY. It’s a very famous hall; a lot of people use it for recordings. And the others that I’ve done with orchestra have been in the orchestra halls. Abby Road Studios, that’s a studio, but the orchestra studio we used was quite a large space, so it felt like a hall. You could have put people in there. It’s not exactly a hall, but it’s not a rinky-dink acoustically dead studio either. When I’ve recorded in London I’ve recorded in studios, but it’s very much like halls. Otherwise it’s just in the orchestra’s home hall.

JT: Going back to your first CD, the sonatas and partitas. That was an interesting choice, to start out with a completely solo recording, as a violinist, that’s-

HH: Actually it’s easier, because you have all the time in the world. You don’t have to stick to an orchestra schedule.

JT: Is that one of the reasons you chose to do that?

HH: No, it’s just the stuff that I played the most actually. I just played more solo Bach than anything else, and why record something you’re not as familiar with. So it just made the most practical sense.

JT: Well you certainly didn’t make any compromises in terms of quality there.

HH: Oh. Well, I did the best that I could.

JT: No, I mean in terms of choosing which works to record, the Bach pieces being some

of the greatest in the violin repertoire.

HH: Oh, right. Yeah, I was just lucky, because they’re great pieces, and I played them a lot so I was familiar with them to a certain extent. Also, being solo, if I wanted to listen to all of the takes I’d done, I could do that. I actually did listen to every single take in that recording. So we would work really late into the night sometimes. Everyone needed to sleep, but no one needed to get onto another job or teaching or whatever else they had scheduled, because it was just us, the crew and me.

JT: Did you have a lot of time for the Concerto recording?

HH: Well of course that was with orchestra, so it was very limited. You have to finish by a certain time. So no, that was pretty straightforward, as far as orchestra recordings go.

JT: Do you have any more Bach recordings in the works?

HH: I’m thinking of making a habit of this, every contract period. So every five or six recordings, I do a Bach. The next contract period is 2 recordings away, and I’ll probably do some cantatas with voice. Various singers and a small ensemble. I think those are really beautiful works and it would be nice. There are some really nice violin lines, and I love working with singers. But that’s a little while out. The next recording is in the works, I’ve recorded Paganini Concerto no. 1. And the other piece I’m playing tomorrow, besides the Bach Double, is the [Ludwig] Spohr Concerto no. 8, which I’ll be recording in February to finish that album. And after that is the Sibelius Concerto and Schoenberg Concerto. And after that is the album in question.

JT: That’s great, sounds like you really have things planned out.

HH: You have to, because you have to book two years in advance. And for recordings these days, it’s not enough to book the preparatory concerts, you also have to book the next season – some concerts of the piece you recorded, so that the record company can get more publicity, to get the word out on the album. And anyway, it’s fun to play something after you’ve recorded it, because you have a different perspective on it, having spent all that time with it.

JT: I understand that music education is very important to you, educating kids about music.

HH: And also college students, and anyone who hasn’t been to a concert or is curious about it. You don’t have to be little to learn new things.

JT: Everyone worries a lot about this, it’s one of the hot topics: the future of classical music. You’re a shining example of a brilliant, young, American musician who has really excelled in classical music. How do you feel about the future of classical music in this country?

HH: I really can’t say, because I haven’t been around for long enough to see certain trends come and go. But what I am noticing is a lot of younger people coming to concerts and just being curious about the music, not necessarily going because they’re being “educated” in it, or because they’re expecting one thing or another, but just because they’re curious. Like, “Oh, what’s this music, I wonder what this is like.” Classical music is one of the few genres – I guess jazz is similar, I guess – where you can just explore it for yourself, and find what you like. And anything you like is fine. It’s not like pop or rock music where a lot of the stations just play the top 50 to 100 hits, and you are pretty much inundated with what’s popular because other people like it. And if you don’t like something that’s cool, then you have bad taste; and if you do like something that everyone hates, you have bad taste, and that reflects on you, and it’s just not like that in classical music. And also, I think because the same thing is played by numerous people, you can really discover more about each piece that you might be curious about, just by listening to different people play it. A lot of people aren’t really aware, unless they’re involved in the classical music world, that the way two people play the same piece, even if we don’t change the notes at all, is quite different from each other. There are little things that make it different. It’s kind of like sitting someone down in front of a certain scene, with the same paints and the same canvas and the same brushes as the person next to them, also sitting in front of the same scene at the same time. And you get two entirely different paintings.

JT: Or different actors performing the same Shakespeare play.

HH: Precisely. You get two people to say the same line and they don’t say it the same way at all. That’s a lot of the interest in classical music. And people can just come and see what they like and go from there. And everything is related, too. Nothing just comes out of the blue. But at the same time, everyone has made these innovations in classical music, all the composers, as time has gone along.

JT: How did you come to classical music, and the violin in particular? Were you in a musical family?

HH: No, not really. There was a lot of music for fun in the family, but not really anyone professional in music. So I just heard it a lot around me. My parents played classical radio all the time, and I grew up listening to classical radio. We didn’t have a TV or anything, so that was always on. And my dad sang in a church choir and he would practice at home. So basically no, not a musical family, just I was exposed to it early on.

JT: Did he sing a lot of Bach?

HH: Yeah, actually. He loves the B Minor Mass, so I’ve heard it a lot.

JT: Of course, don’t we all!

HH: Yeah, and then of course, as far as Bach was concerned, I’ve done a lot of Bach, because in Solfege class, we had to do Bach… what do you call them? I want to say cantatas, now that I have that word in my head…

JT: You probably mean the chorales.

HH: Yeah, the chorales. We had to read these chorales in different clefs and play them on the piano, so I would practice them and get really familiar with them. I was one of those dorks who practiced their Solfege assignments, so I actually got familiar with a lot of them. A lot of what Bach wrote is really great music, and it’s different from itself, one piece is different from the next. And they really have interesting content, each particular piece, no matter how short it is.

JT: That’s why we’re able to play Bach for a week and half non-stop.

HH: Right!

JT: There’s really no other composer you can do that with, who wrote that much music, that consistently great, and that varied.

HH: Right, and you can just find so much in it. And he wrote for a lot of different instruments as well, so there’s variety just in the nature of what he wrote.

JT: Well, thank you so much for talking to us. We look forward to more recordings, and more Bach. [short re-iteration of December 28 concert info]