I had not heard any of Hilary Hahn’s recordings when I first listened to this, and my first impression was of a very distinct personality. The playing is expressive, but also reserved – Hahn never quite seems to cut loose. This may be an interpretive choice specific to these sonatas. It might also be a quality of the recording itself, which gives an impression of being further back from the violin than I’m used to – this isn’t one of those recordings where you feel like you can distinguish individual hairs on the bow.
There were moments in some of these sonatas, for example in in the first movement of K. 301, where I found myself wondering whether the music shouldn’t sound bigger than it does. And along similar lines, there’s a series of little phrases in the rondeau of K. 376 that are playful, as they’re meant to be, but it’s a very restrained sort of playfulness. It’s like the music is unfolding in physically a small space.
But this early impression of restraint faded a little bit. Or rather, by the second time I listened to the CD I stopped thinking of it as restraint and started thinking of it as unostentatiousness. In the second movement of K. 301, towards the middle, there’s a part where the music goes into 3. (There may also be a key change – I can’t remember.) The shift in color is not in the least bit pushy – again, I’m going with unostentatious – but you can’t miss it.
Or, to take a different example, there’s a very distinct shift in I don’t know what you’d call it, personality or color or what, between K. 301 and the next piece on the recording, K. 304. This may be just the key change talking, but this sonata feels darker, and more focused than the previous, and there are moments of greater intensity and expansiveness. And there’s a feeling of unsentimentality to the playing that I like – what made me think this was the way Hahn tends to end things. Final chords are not drawn out, or showy. Rather, they have a way of ringing for just the right amount of time, and then stopping.
By the last selection, K. 526, I felt like I was hearing more depth in the sound. Or maybe I was just getting used to what I was hearing. Either way. This is not screaming-eagle take-no-prisoners violin playing, but Hahn’s artistry definitely repays repeated listening.