In 27 Pieces is a daring release for a performer of Hilary Hahn’s stature, consisting entirely of commissions from living composers and clocking in just under two full hours. However, the album is a dynamic mess of juxtapositions and stylistic pivots, seemingly crafted to suit any taste profile or attention span. There are Eastern modalities, postmodern “collage and quotation” works, Copland-esque Americana, John Zorn-ish skronk and C&W swing fiddle; the scenario changes every five minutes. By sheer virtue of its ambition and self-assuredness, In 27 Pieces will intrigue contemporary-classical skeptics and satiate its defenders.
The roster for In 27 Pieces includes a healthy number of America’s most well-known living composers, but many of the most compelling pieces come from writers better known in other parts of the world. Du Yun’s When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa couples a plaintive expository section steeped in melismas, drones and microtonal bends (evoking the sound of traditional Chinese “fiddles” like the Erho or the Huquin), with chaotic interruptions featuring some of Hahn’s fiercest playing. In his eerie miniature Whispering, Finnish elder statesman Einojuhani Rautavaara employs lush, liminal harmonies that recall Messiaen. Two Voices by Nico Muhly is one of the finest pieces present by an American composer; he alternates single notes or swells voiced in the violin’s chest voice with high, fragile harmonics, creating an atmospheric, “cat and mouse”-style musical conversation.
Even the album’s most uncompromising and acerbic works (see Elliott Sharp’s Storm of the Eye and Richard Barrett’s shade) are written both creatively and idiomatically for the violin, and Hahn tackles the challenges presented by each with aplomb. She is known for including 20th Century and contemporary works on recordings of more standard repertory (i.e. tricking conservative fans into buying Ives and Schoenberg); one can only hope that these listeners will put aside their prejudices and take a chance on In 27 Pieces, even if only for the love of Hilary.