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Hilary Hahn, 'Sonata No. 3, Ballade'

In the classical violin world, there are three great mountains to climb for the solo fiddler: J.S. Bach's six Sonatas and Partitas, from 1720; Paganini's 24 Caprices, completed in 1817; and the Six Sonatas by the Belgian master Eugéne Ysaÿe, who was busy composing them exactly 100 years ago.

To mark the centenary, Hilary Hahn has trekked to the peak, releasing a new album of all six of Ysaÿe's thorny works, each with a distinct personality, each reaching treacherous and sublime heights. Ysaÿe is credited with ushering in the modern mode of violin playing that emphasized virtuosity (but not empty exhibitionism), bold sounds and free-wheeling imagination.

All of that is rigorously packed into the Third Sonata, subtitled "Ballade." Just getting to all the notes is a major feat, but Hahn, with a big, burgundy tone and pinpoint accuracy, finds a narrative arc amid the composer's thicket of double stops and broadly colored harmonies. The piece opens with a sober plea, rising upward, braking suddenly, as if delivering a warning. A jagged theme emerges, worked out in passages calm as a whisper or turbulent as a gale force cri de coeur. Ysaÿe closes with a daredevil finish that would make Paganini tremble.

While the music was once considered mainly grist for violin geeks, over the decades Ysaÿe's sonatas have slowly secured a foothold in the repertoire. Hahn's new performances guarantee the fascination with these beautiful, inscrutable pieces will not soon fade.

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Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.