New Classical Tracks: Collaborating on Bach

by Julie Amacher
March 22, 2010

Listen New Classical Tracks - 3/24/10
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Hilary Hahn/Matthias Goerne/Christine Schafer -- Bach: Violin and Voice (DG 13832-02) (Courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon)

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Hilary Hahn has always loved chamber music and has wanted to make a chamber recording for quite a while. She also had hoped to record with singers. On her new release, "Violin and Voice," she's combined both of these dreams into one. "I can't sing," she explains, "but I can play violin and I enjoy working with other musicians and doing things in a collaborative way. So the opportunity to record with two vocal soloists, and some amazing continuo players, and the chamber orchestra that I worked with was really a great experience for me."

Her ideas about the music of Bach for voice and violin started to formulate when she was just four years old. During one of her father's choir concerts she was intrigued when a soprano stepped up to sing an aria. Then suddenly a second person joined in playing violin, an instrument she had just started learning to play, "I was just really surprised that they could both work together," she recalls, "I grew up with my Dad singing in church choirs on a semi-amateur, semi-professional basis and so he was active in that, and I would hear him practice. I was the first violinist in the family so I was really familiar with the vocal range, but not so familiar with the violin. When I was little hearing them combined in that one early performance that I heard was really eye-opening."

Hilary Hahn enjoys the supporting role she plays on this recording. It's similar yet different than playing second violin in a string quartet which she did while in school, "It's tricky to come out of a supporting role and play a solo and then come back and forth," she explains, "and that does happen in these arias because I play the introduction and then they sing a bit, and then it repeats back to the beginning where there's the introduction again, and they sing again. Also at the same time, the violin has in certain moments, certain phrases, equal solo billing with the singers. So it's all these different roles to play. And a lot of the other musicians are doing similar things as well, but I think the violin part is the one that mimics the singers' lines the closest."

Soprano Christine Schafer and baritone Matthias Goerne chose the repertoire for this recording, which features all Bach arias from cantatas composed for church services. One of Bach's most popular cantatas is the Cantata No. 140, "Wachet auf." Bach used an old Protestant chorale of the same name as his starting point and then created a dramatic parable based on a metaphor of a marriage union between the human soul (soprano), and Christ (bass). In the duet, 'Wann kommst du, mein Heil,' the musical lines of the two voices and violin weave in and out of one another, creating a beautiful musical tapestry.

The bass aria, "Ja, ja, ich halte Jesum feste," ("Yes, yes, I have a firm hold on Jesus"), from the Cantata No. 157, "Ich lasse dich nicht," was written for a memorial service, yet there's nothing somber about this work. Jaunty eighth notes provide a buoyant base for the joyful dialogue between the flute and violin. Baritone Matthias Goerne offers an uplifting performance. His tone is warm and inviting. His interpretation is light and jubilant as he sings of the joys of heaven.

The final aria on this recording comes from the St. Matthew Passion. The aria "Erbarme dich" was originally written for alto in 1727. One hundred years later, Mendelssohn reworked that aria for soprano. It's that version that Christine Schafer performs on this new release. The aria opens and closes with a long solo violin line. Here is one example of how Hilary Hahn had to juggle her roles as supporting player and soloist. "So I had to think about the words. I had to think about the sounds and the timbres of each vowel and consonant and think about the articulation," Hahn explains, "But I also had to make it sound in the solo lines like I was making those choices myself and not copying someone."

Hilary Hahn is a talented, thoughtful artist who continues to discover new ways to share her joy and love of music. On her latest recording, "Violin and Voice," she provides the common thread that unifies each aria. This collection was a long-awaited dream for Hilary Hahn, who along with her colleagues, Matthias Goerne, Christine Schafer, the Munich Chamber Orchestra and conductor Alexander Liebreich helps to reveal the true artistry of J.S. Bach.