Grown-up Beethoven

Nick Shave enjoys a Concerto performance from Hilary Hahn, a former prodigy who has avoided burn-out. And how.

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Thinking back, it’s more than a decade since I met Hilary Hahn, in an unglamorous three-star hotel where she was staying, somewhere in the backstreets of Paris. At 16, or thereabouts, she was still something of a child prodigy, the Wunderkind who had begun her studies at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 10 and made her Germany debut with the Beethoven Concerto, aged 15.

She was chaperoned by her father, who remained in the room for our interview, even though she seemed completely unfazed by the media interest – not to mention the huge levels of expectation from her record company, teachers, and family. Perhaps he was thinking of those young virtuosos who had walked the tightrope – that fine line between extraordinary success and painful failure – and tripped.

To see Hahn’s name in the Proms programme this year, it’s easy to forget just how far she has come – and how little she has faltered – since her talent was first paraded into the limelight. Now at the age of 31 she has well and truly established her place in the first-class category of top-flight musicians – she is so at home there, in fact, it’s tempting to take for granted the facility and insight with which she plays. We expect it.

But when Hahn meets expectation these days, she comes armed not just with dazzlingly precocious talent, but with 20 years of performing experience. This much was abundantly clear when on Tuesday’s Beethoven Night, she joined Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen for the Violin Concerto, playing with the absolute assurance and freedom of one who has been performing this work since (and indeed recorded it in) her teens.

Hahn is a commanding presence on stage: she plays without flamboyance, but with no shortage of flair. From the outset – a climb by shifts into the violin’s stratospheric registers – she showed a powerful combination of lightness and strength. In the cadenzas – she chose the Kreisler, with its fiendish thickets of quadruple stopping in the third movement – her tone was no less focussed. And while her coolly understated delivery proved effective in the faster movements, greater displays of introspection paid off in the central Larghetto.

Her performance was framed by the First and Fifth Beethoven Symphonies in which Järvi drew precise playing with plenty of punch from Bremen’s Kammerphilharmonie. Recommended listening to anyone who can get to the repeat performance at 2pm on Friday.

Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall.