On Monday evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter in recital at the Ordway. We had not heard Mutter since November 2006, when we had attended her all-Mozart recital, also at the Ordway.
Mutter is an incomparable instrumentalist and an incomparable musician. Her interests are wide-ranging, her personality is beguiling, and she is in possession of an original and penetrating mind, all of which may be heard in her playing. As instrumentalist or as musician, she has no peer among today’s violinists.
Mutter eschews the onstage play-acting so many violinists have adopted in recent years. Not for her are displays of dumb-show faces and prance-around-the-stage dance antics that mar the performances of Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham and Nikolaj Znaider, among many others. Mutter allows her violin to do the “expressing”.
Monday’s recital began with a performance of Mozart’s Sonata No. 27 In G Major, written in 1781.
For me, the Mozart was the least interesting performance of the evening. I did not hear the usual “Mutter Magic” in the Mozart, and I suspect Mutter was not yet focused for the night. Mutter is an incomparable Mozart player—the best alive among violinists—and her Mozart on Monday night was more objective than usual, and slightly impersonal, even detached. The ideal tempo was never found—at times, it seemed as if Mutter wanted to move ahead of her pianist, the excellent Lambert Orkis, and at other times it seemed as if Mutter wanted to slow down—and the perfect emotional temperature was never captured. By Mutter standards, the Mozart was a disappointment.
The Schubert Fantasy In C Major, from 1827, followed.
Within the last couple of years, Mutter has become of the belief that the Schubert Fantasy is the single greatest work ever written for violin. Mutter’s view is founded in the circumstance that the Fantasy bears all the hallmarks of late Schubert: it has the widest possible range of emotion; it is of unique and original design (but has perfection of form); and it carries the unparalleled profundity of practically everything Schubert wrote in his final two years.
If one may judge from recorded performances, the Fantasy is not an easy work to bring off. The work has been recorded countless times, by most of the prominent violinists of the last hundred years, and yet none of the recorded performances is satisfactory.
Mutter must have the measure of the work, because in her hands the Fantasy—for the first time—convinced me of its greatness.
While listening, I tried to determine what Mutter was doing that made the Fantasy come alive. My conclusions: Mutter’s sound and tonal coloration were right for the piece; Mutter’s tempi were exceptionally well-judged; and Mutter’s phrasing was extremely detailed and extremely natural. Of greater importance, Mutter knew how to knit into a unified whole the work’s disparate characteristics: its pages of melancholy; its song-like episodes; and its brilliant display passages. Mutter may be the only violinist of modern times who understands the work, and is inspired by it.
Mutter plans to record the Fantasy—and I plan to be among the first buyers when the disc is issued.
After intermission came Lutoslawki’s Partita in its violin-and-piano version. The Partita had been commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; its first performance had been at the Ordway in 1985 (Pinchas Zukerman had been soloist).
The more familiar orchestral version of the Partita first appeared in 1988, in Munich, with Mutter as soloist—and Mutter has kept the work in her active repertory ever since, often performing it alongside the composer’s Chain II and Interlude (the three works, performed together, constitute a violin concerto in all but name).
In remarkably short time, the Partita has become a classic—and Mutter has become inextricably associated with the work, performing it all over the world. The Partita is now one of Mutter’s calling cards—and, she says, it is the work that opened her mind to contemporary composition, of which she is now a master performer.
Mutter has recorded the Partita in its orchestral version, famously, and her recorded performance is excellent—but her performance on Monday night was even better than her recording. The central Largo is now freer, and carries more tenderness, than the recorded performance, and the brilliant Presto is more sizzling than before, with its Szymanowski-like central episode now thrown into high relief.
The recital concluded with a performance of Saint-Saëns’s Violin Sonata No. 1 In D Minor, from 1885.
I have never much cared for the Saint-Saëns—I have always thought it facile and empty—and I am always disappointed to see the work appear on recital programs. It must be one of those works more fun to play than to hear.
Mutter was the third recitalist in recent years to have closed an Ordway recital with the Saint-Saëns. Joshua Bell had done so in February 2008, without distinction, and Julia Fischer had done so in February 2012, again without distinction.
I was not particularly looking forward to hearing Mutter in the Saint-Saëns. Mutter’s natural realm is Central European repertory; she does not always capture the right fragrance in French music.
The Saint-Saëns turned out to be the surprise of the night. Mutter gave a performance the likes of which I have never heard. It was the most exciting—even thrilling—performance of the evening.
In hindsight, I can see that the formal Classicism of the piece is what appeals to Mutter. The Saint-Saëns allows her to display her command of Classicism while at the same time displaying her personality—and her virtuosity.
All were on abundant display.
Mutter took speeds no other violinist would dare, yet each note was perfectly-placed, and on pitch. There was not the slightest hint of strain.
Every phrase, every coloring, every shading, was minutely characterized, yet the long line was never lost.
Most of all, Mutter seemed to find content in the piece. There was true drama to be heard in the first movement, and genuine emotion in the second. Mutter succeeded in elevating the work beyond salon music, a thing few musicians have managed to accomplish.
Mutter’s was a performance of genius—of a work that probably does not deserve such careful treatment.
At the conclusion, the audience—with justification—erupted. The pianist shook his head in admiration and amazement, while Mutter gave the audience a smile that resembled that of a cat that ate the canary.
There were three encores, two French, surely as follow-ups to the Saint-Saëns: Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera; Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 2; and the Meditation from Massenet’s “Thaïs”.
Monday evening’s concert played to a full house. The last time I saw a full house in one of the two main large concert venues in the Twin Cities was, if I am not mistaken, the last time Mutter appeared here: November 2006.
Mutter clearly has a Minnesota following.