Hilary Hahn Plays Brahms

with the NAC Orchestra

2024-11-20 20:00 2024-11-21 23:00 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: Hilary Hahn Plays Brahms


In-person event

Three-time Grammy award-winning superstar violinist Hilary Hahn returns for a special night that celebrates the timeless allure of classical music and the innovative arrangements of modern compositions The evening honours the legacy of the pioneering Finnish female composer Kaija Saariaho through a performance of her piece, "Ciel d'Hiver"  Symphony No. 2 “The Four Temperaments” by Danish composer Carl Nielsen, inspired by an unforgettable medieval painting Nielsen once...

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Southam Hall,1 Elgin Street,Ottawa,Canada
November 20 - 21, 2024

≈ 2 hours · With intermission

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Ciel d'hiver


Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77

I. Allegro non troppo
II. Adagio 
III. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace 

Most of the violin concertos from the 19th century we hear in the concert hall today were written for the eminent virtuosos of their time (in some cases, composer and violinist were one and the same). Very few, in fact, collaborated to the extent that Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) and the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim (1831–1907) did to create a work on which the performer made such an indelible mark. As such, Brahms’s Violin Concerto remains a uniquely weighty example of the genre from its time that blurred the boundaries between composer and performer, soloist and orchestra, concerto and symphony.

It was August 1878, 25 years into their friendship, when Brahms surprised Joachim with the first movement of a violin concerto he had been secretly working on, requesting feedback on whatever the violinist found “difficult, awkward, impossible.” Delighted, Joachim responded, “Most of it is playable, much of it violinistically quite original; but whether it will be enjoyable to play in an overheated hall, I cannot confirm unless I play through the whole piece.” 

Over the next months, they worked on the concerto together in person and via correspondence until the premiere on New Year’s Day in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, with Joachim performing and Brahms conducting. This first effort was a disappointment; having only received the complete violin part four days before, Joachim was under prepared, and Brahms had been nervous, while the audience was coolly polite and the critics ambivalent. Two weeks later, in Vienna, Joachim played the concerto again (this time conducted by Joseph Hellmesberger) with much better results, though the critics there remained reserved. Learning from these performances, Brahms and Joachim together continued to tinker with the score, adjusting issues of balance (such as thinning out the orchestration in places) and refining violinistic details, even as Joachim continued to perform it. In August, after one last in-person consultation (during which they played it through for Clara Schumann), they agreed on the Concerto’s final version, which was published in October. 

As several scholars have revealed, Brahms didn’t just write his Violin Concerto for Joachim, he wrote it with him. He consulted the Joachim not only to be sure that his violin writing was idiomatically natural, but also to create a solo part that best embodied the performance style for which the great violinist was revered. Beyond his exceptional technical skill, Joachim was celebrated for his uncompromising attitude to musical quality and fidelity to the composer’s score. Furthermore, as musicologist Karen Leistra-Jones has discovered, he was especially admired for his “uncanny ability to present composed musical works as though they were being improvised, created on the spot through a mysterious fusion of Joachim himself with the mind or spirit of the composer.” As you’ll hear, it’s this quality of improvisatory spontaneity in Joachim’s playing that Brahms, through working with him, captures in the violin part. Meanwhile, the orchestra isn’t merely a backdrop but is shaped by rigorous symphonic processes, through which the violin solo intervenes and is interwoven.

The tension between these two expressive worlds is most palpable in the Concerto’s substantial first movement. It begins with the orchestra introducing several important motifs: 1) a falling then rising arpeggiated line of calm character; 2) robustly bold octaves; 3) gently winding phrases; and 4) confident snappy rhythms that lead to the soloist’s entry. Throughout the movement, each of these elements recurs and undergoes transformation, while the violin generally ruminates and decorates this material in a free and expansive way. In the lyrical second theme area, the violin interjects an expressive new theme that wasn’t in the orchestral exposition. The conflict between the two worlds escalates in the development section, but eventually culminates in an exuberant return of the opening theme for the recapitulation.

In the traditional point for a cadenza, Brahms had Joachim create his own, which, notably, Joachim wrote out rather than improvising one (today, his cadenza is still the most often played). A serious composition unto itself, the cadenza revisits all the movement’s main themes and motifs. At its conclusion, the violin leads into a final tranquil restatement of the opening theme, which the clarinet and oboe then take up, as the violin continues with a sublime extension that has it reaching ever higher. (This exquisite moment was the result of Brahms accepting Joachim’s advice to make his original conception of the theme less “uncomfortable” for the violin.) Gradually, the violin emerges out of its idyll, liquifying its line into flowing improvisatory phrases, after which the energy picks up and draws the movement to an emphatic close. 

The Concerto is rounded off by two shorter movements of contrasting character. Extending the “idyll” from near the end of the “Allegro,” the “Adagio” opens with a gorgeous melody sung by solo oboe. As in the first movement, the violin then takes the theme and muses on it, thoroughly exploring its lyrical and emotional possibilities. Following a rhapsodic middle section, the melody reappears in the oboe, now with the violin weaving around it. Together, they continue in a tender exchange to the movement’s serene end. The Finale is an affectionate tribute to Joachim. In the style hongrois (a blend of Hungarian musical elements and the fluid virtuosity of Romani performing style), the violin is fully unleashed in this boisterous rondo, which alternately features rigorous dance rhythms, florid runs, and charming delicate melodies. 

Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD 


Symphony No. 2, “The Four Temperaments”

Born in Sortelung, near Nørre Lyndelse on the island of Funen, Denmark, June 9, 1865
Died in Copenhagen, October 3, 1931

Denmark’s most famous composer, Carl Nielsen, like his Finnish counterpart Sibelius, ranks as one of the leading symphonists of the early twentieth century. Nielsen had a voice all his own, but he grew up in an era that included so many attention-grabbing personalities – Debussy, Bartók, Mahler, Ravel, Satie, Schoenberg, Busoni, Strauss, Stravinsky, Varèse – that there was little room left in the international consciousness for conservative music written by a quiet, simple man in Copenhagen.

But times change, and the Nielsen ratings are now significantly higher than they were just a few decades ago. His music, especially the six symphonies and three concertos (clarinet, flute, violin), is now encountered frequently and appreciated for its fresh approach to old forms, for its deeply ingrained spirit of humanity, its vital energy and ingratiating charm.

Human conditions are very much at the heart of Symphony No. 2. In 1901, during a visit to a village pub in Zealand, Nielsen saw hanging on the wall a four-part series of pictures depicting the four temperaments. His first reaction was to laugh derisively, along with all his friends. But later he found his thoughts “constantly returning to them, and one fine day it was clear to me that these simple paintings contained a core of goodness and – even – a musical possibility.” These reflections evolved into a four-movement symphony, which Nielsen completed in 1902. The premiere, conducted by the composer, was given in Copenhagen on December 1 of that year.

The “four temperaments” have occupied the minds of physicians, philosophers and psychologists since pre-Christian times. Essentially, they were thought to be the basic liquids in the human body that contributed to forming an individual’s personality: blood, phlegm (from the throat), black bile (congealed blood from the spleen) and yellow bile (gall secreted by the liver). The first was responsible for enthusiasm and excitability, the second for apathy and indolence, the third for melancholia, and the fourth for anger and irritability.

The sonata-form first movement bursts forth with all the vigour and vitality befitting a “choleric” temperament, but later there are also moments of calm and restraint (notably the sunny, genial second theme presented by woodwinds in turn). As Nielsen said, “the impetuous man can have his milder moments, the melancholy man his impetuous or brighter ones, and the boisterous, cheerful man can become a little contemplative, even quite serious – but only for a little while.”

Nielsen did not generally like the idea of writing program music, but he made an exception for the second movement of this symphony. “I visualized a young fellow [who] was uncommonly lovable. … It was impossible to scold him, for everything idyllic and heavenly in nature was to be found in this young lad. His inclination was to lie where the birds sing, where the fish glide noiselessly through the water. I have never seen him dance; he wasn’t active enough for that, though he might easily have got the idea to swing himself in a gentle slow waltz rhythm, so I have used that for the movement.” In contrast to the mood swings found in the other movements, Nielsen here affirmed that “the lazy, indolent man… only emerges from his phlegmatic state with the greatest of difficulty, so this movement is both brief (he can’t be bothered) and uniform in its progress.”

The movement marked Andante malincolico (Nielsen misspelled the Italian “malinconico”) is indeed, heavy, dour and laden with the darkly-coloured key of E-flat minor (six flats). To Nielsen, there is expressed here “a strong outcry of pain” (strings), a “plaintive, sighing motif [oboe] that slowly develops, ending in a climax of lamentation and suffering. After a short transition there is a quieter, resigned episode in E-flat major.”

In the sanguine finale, Nielsen “tried to sketch a man who storms thoughtlessly forward in the belief that the whole world belongs to him. … The final march, though joyous and bright, is yet more dignified and not so silly and self-satisfied as in some of the previous parts of his development.”

– Program notes by Robert Markow


  • Violin Hilary Hahn
  • Conductor John Storgårds
  • Featuring NAC Orchestra

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