Tanglewood review: Getting personal with Bach

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LENOX - Bach leaves few instructions beyond bare notes for the performer of his solo violin sonatas and partitas, so any performance of them is bound to be personal.

Hilary Hahn took the stage Wednesday night at Tanglewood and made three of the set of six not only personal but also brilliant and impassioned. The paradox was that the more personal they were, the more they were Bach. The more alone she was on the stage, the more the stage seemed full.

Who would have guessed that an evening of solo Bach would attract a crowd that filled Ozawa Hall and most of its lawn? Perhaps word was out that Hahn is a leading exponent of these pieces, touring and recording them and making them the centerpiece of her past season. Or perhaps on a warm summer night with a half-moon floating overhead, Tanglewood just seemed like a good place to be.

Like Bach's six unaccompanied cello suites, the set of sonatas and partitas — the partitas consisting of fast outer movements enclosing stylized dance forms — pose technical challenges first of all: How does the player make a melody instrument suggest as many as four instruments in Bach's contrapuntal writing?

Beyond that, what do these bare notes mean — not in any literal or programmatic sense, but as a journey into joy, sorrow and all the emotions in between?

Meaning, along with and beyond technical mastery, was Hahn's accomplishment. Playing from memory, she brought intellect and imagination to the three pieces: the Sonatas Nos. 2 (in A minor) and 3 (in C) and, in the middle, the Partita No. 3 (in E). In each, she freely bent dynamics and rhythms to her taste but each note, even in the flashiest passages, was immaculately etched.

The opening adagio of the Sonata No. 3, for example, had an infectious swaying rhythm. The following fugue — a match in contrapuntal complexity for the more the more famous chaconne in the D minor Partita — was astonishing in the varied shadings and sheer brilliance, anchored by a steady underlying pulse, that Hahn found in them. The final allegro, ending the program, was a burst of pure joy.

The slow movement of both sonatas had the sublime quality that somehow seems to lift Bach's music off the earth and into some heavenly sphere. The partita's prelude was a dazzling showpiece, the succeeding dances an exercise in dignity and vitality. If some of the multi-stopping elsewhere seemed over-emphatic, so what?                     Famously, as members of the Bach family sold off some of J.S.'s manuscripts to relieve poverty, the manuscripts of these six works were rescued from a pile of scrap destined to be butcher's wrapping paper. Ozawa Hall was full. The moon sailed overhead. For two hours, all seemed right with the world.

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