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New classical tracks: Hilary Hahn channels Mozart

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Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zhu (album cover)
Hilary Hahn/ Natalie Zhu: Mozart Violin Sonatas, K.201, 304, 376, 506 (Deutsche Grammophon, release date: 10/11/2005)

St. Paul, Minn. — Two-thousand-and-six is a big year for Mozart. Plenty of new Mozart recordings will be appearing on store shelves in honor of his 250th birth anniversary. Violinist Hilary Hahn is leading off this anniversary party with her new release of Mozart sonatas.

When she first planned this project she says she wasn't aware it would coincide with Mozart's big birthday bash, but, she adds, "I can't complain about the coincidence!"

This is Hilary Hahn's first chamber music recording for Deutsche Grammophon. It's also her first Mozart recording. She's been looking forward to making this album for a long time, so she thought it was almost symbolic to make the project with someone to whom she had a real connection.

That "someone " is her long-time recital partner, pianist Natalie Zhu. Hahn and Zhu started performing together more than a decade ago when both were young teenaged students at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute. Zhu was studying with Gary Graffman, the director of the institute. He had a hunch the two musicians might hit it off, and he was right. It was Hahn's teacher who asked her to pick out a Mozart sonata. So, she and Zhu sat down and sight-read every one of them. As it turned out, they really enjoyed all of them. Years later, when they had to choose just four of the 18 for this recording, they returned to Hahn's original scores to see where she put the double-stars indicating the ones that really captured their attention from the start. Now that they've worked on them more in-depth, Hahn says they've been able to uncover more of Mozart's secrets, like those found in the E minor sonata. But then, the true secret of Mozart's music is found in the heart of each performer.

The E minor sonata is the first sonata these two musicians performed in concert when Hahn was just 13 years old. It's unusual because it starts out so mysteriously. The melody is sad, yet beautiful.

I love the way Hahn's violin extends the line the piano plays in the first movement. It reminds me of a spider spinning her web creating an intricate piece of art that's functional, and also fragile. This piece is also challenging for the piano. The violin has to pick up on what the pianist is doing and run with it, since it was the practice of the time for the piano to be the leader. Mozart made sure that the piano took the initiative. Of course, for him it was easy, since he could play both instruments. He was in charge whether he was playing the violin or the piano.

It takes years for a fine wine to mature, and the same is true for a fine interpretation. The musical partnership of these two musicians has included repertoire of all eras and styles, but Mozart's sonatas for piano and violin have been their common denominator. Their tours together have allowed them to live with Mozart day in and day out, so their performances are emotional and spontaneous.

Hahn and Zhu find there's little need to talk about the music in rehearsal or in performance, because one can guess what the other is thinking. Yet Zhu admits that she doesn't always do what Hahn is expecting. "We give each other surprises," she explains, "We improvise—that's what makes it so much fun." What makes it fun for me as a listener is I can't tell when they're improvising. All I know for sure is these two are having a fine time, and they're letting me in on it.

All four of these sonatas display a different personality. That's the great thing about Mozart, Hahn explains, "His writing is distinctive, and intriguing. You can identify his music immediately." The fact that Mozart was able to pull off composing one completely original work after another is a testament to his amazing ability. This new collection of Mozart sonatas with Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zhu is a wonderful testament to their talent, and to the legacy of a composer who has touched generations of music lovers.

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