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Review: Hilary Hahn and Robert Levin, solo and together at Disney Hall

Violinist Hilary Hahn performs with pianist Robert Levin on Wednesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Violinist Hilary Hahn performs with pianist Robert Levin on Wednesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes it takes time for a concert to settle in and become interesting. Such was the case at the joint recital of violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Robert Levin on Wednesday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The second half — when the two performers went their separate ways for commissioned solo pieces — was considerably more involving than the first.

Hahn and Levin have pushed beyond the usual paths for star soloists on tour — Hahn with her willingness to explore and commission new music like “In 27 Pieces,” a 2014 double album of 27 encores from 27 different composers, and Levin with his deep plunges into Mozart scholarship by making completed performing editions of the unfinished Requiem and Mass in C Minor. Both also happen to be articulate speakers, and at Disney they spoke well for their individual pieces.

Hahn’s solo piece, the world premiere of Spanish composer Antón García Abril’s Partita No. 4, grew directly out of her “In 27 Pieces” project. Abril had contributed a piece to the album and Hahn liked it so much that she commissioned him to write a new set of six solo Partitas, the last three of which she is premiering this season on tour.

Each piece is based on a note stemming from a letter in Hilary’s name. (This being No. 4, “A” was the operative letter, and the piece’s subtitle is “Art.”) What came out was an attractive, questioning, absorbing series of multi-stopped harmonies that allowed Hahn’s tone to bloom fully for the first time in the evening.

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Levin’s solo turn, “Träume” (“Dreams”) by Romanian composer Hans Peter Turk, was a memorial to Turk’s late pianist wife. “Träume” conjured a stream-of-consciousness, dream-like state with tinkling high passages in the treble, chromatic scale agitation on both ends of the keyboard — and I think I detected the first three notes of Brahms’ Lullaby a few times.

Abril’s and Turk’s pieces clocked in at just under eight minutes each, and both were well worth hearing again sometime.

Hahn and Levin’s joint performance before the solos amounted to a long warmup session. In J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 6 in G, BWV 1019, Hahn could be incisive and expressive, but Levin’s piano was watery in tone and his playing lacking in rhythmic vitality. (Hear Glenn Gould’s extraordinarily alive and pointed playing on his recording with Jaime Laredo, and you can’t miss the difference.) Levin sounded more in tune with the language of Mozart’s Sonata in E-Flat, K. 481, bringing more character and variety to the rhetoric, and Hahn remained sharp and precise, but at an ascetic emotional distance.

After their solo pieces, though, the Hahn-Levin team developed a full head of steam, burning through Schubert’s Rondo in B Minor, D. 895, with forceful, even rollicking rhythmic momentum.

They followed with a pair of offbeat encores: Max Richter’s slow, pretty, Satie Gymnopédie-like “Mercy” from Hahn’s “In 27 Pieces” album, and Lili Boulanger’s sometimes Spanish-flavored “Cortège” that ironically doesn’t sound anything like a cortege.

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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