Mutter Colin Davis Mozart

Wednesday 5 December 2001

Symphony No.32 in G, K318
Violin Concerto No.1 in B flat, K207
Violin Concerto No.2 in D, K211
Symphony No 38 in D, K504 (Prague)

Friday 7 December 2001

Symphony No 32 in G, K318
Violin Concerto No.3 in G, K216
Violin Concerto No.4 in D, K218
Symphony No 38 in D, K504 (Prague)

Sunday 9 December 2001

Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for violin and viola, K364
Violin Concerto No.5 in A, K219
Symphony No 41 in C, K551 (Jupiter)

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

Yuri Bashmet (viola)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 9 December, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Anne-Sophie Mutter speaks of Mozart as her “historical hero,” while the distinctive grace and poise of Sir Colin Davis’s Mozart interpretations date back at least forty years (there’s fine HMV recordings of symphonies 29, 34 and 39 from 1960). On paper, Mutter and Davis was a sure-fire combination; in execution it became a miracle. My immediate feeling was that I never needed to hear these concertos again. There is, of course, an infinity of approaches to Mozart – this one was delivered with absolute conviction and authority: her conviction, his authority.

All Mutter’s performances were perfect, full of self-belief and beauty of sound. Yet some were more perfect than others; nor were the most perfect necessarily the most moving. No.1 was the most revelatory, and No.5 the best.The First Concerto is the black sheep of the set, much criticised and seldom performed. In Mutter’s hands it gained equal stature, the outer movements rich in exhibition, the Adagio an example of a flawless singing line.

Mutter combines iron Classical control with free use of Romantic tone production. A constant alternation of silver and cream, an intimate whisper, then sumptuous outburst.Her pianissimo, often marking the first entry, a delicate soprano line, which effortlessly filled the hall, was the high point of each concerto’s slow movement, beguiling in the unfamiliar No.1, heart-stopping in No 4. Likewise, Mozart’s trademark soft conclusions to these concertos left one wanting more – another movement, another concerto, until the end when one could be satisfied: this cycle was planned and executed as an emotional music-drama.

Am I able to find words of criticism? Yes, and surprisingly obvious ones. Mutter was preoccupied with conveying the divine naturalness of the music – as her quote in the programme, “he is so complex in the simplicity of his music,” showed. On occasions the very artlessness of her playing became too intentional, too studied. Where one could marvel at how No.1 was now perfectly integrated into the canon, there were moments when the familiarity of the next three concertos made them appear over-interpreted. In particular, the ’galante’ reading of the folk-music episodes of numbers 3 and 4 was just too civilised and discriminating; they were, ironically, just too perfect.

As for the LSO, Sir Colin’s fluent, idiomatic, even conservative style let the players produce an ideal backdrop for Mutter’s magical webs of sound. As the cycle progressed, the blending of sound and phrasing, not just between orchestral violins and the soloist, but also with the woodwinds became admirable. While the first performance of Symphony No.32 had a certain old-fashioned, big-band sound, the orchestra instantly adapted in scale to accompany Mutter and, by K364, its own textures had an exemplary chamber feel – easy to understand why Mozart arranged the Sinfonia Concertante for string sextet.

It says a great deal for the quality of Sir Colin’s conducting that the ’Prague’ symphony was in no way a disappointment after the concertos. Whereas hearing Symphony No.32 emphasised its hybrid nature – overgrown overture or compressed symphony – the ’Prague’ is a tightly-knit, dramatic piece, an ideal foil to the more lyrical and bucolic concertos, and an ideal vehicle for Sir Colin’s deep appreciation of musical architectural. Mutter gave us intensity, metaphorical tears, then celebration; Sir Colin rounded the gamut of emotion with formal exposition and grandeur – exactly like an operatic finale after a series of arias and choruses.

Enter Yuri Bashmet to play more than just a cameo role.Viola players, like accompanists, have to learn to empathise precisely with their soloist colleagues without losing the capacity for individual expression. For the first two movements of K364, Bashmet did just that, matching not only Mutter’s phrasing but also imitating her tone-colour. At the start of the slow movement, Mutter stood with her head bowed, intense emotion on her face, like an anomalous bare-shouldered Pieta. Her own evident reverence for the music – it is the movement she highlighted in her programme note – was a perfect visual image of the awe the audience in turn rightly felt for her playing. The catharsis of the ’Andante’ achieved, Mutter constantly pressed the music forward in the ’Presto’. Only here did the violin, better suited to being playful and skittish, leave the viola sounding earth-bound.

With the finishing post in sight, Mutter perceptibly relaxed and gave free rein to her emotion for this music. As had been hinted throughout the cycle, it was the element of Romantic passion that truly delivered the quality of naturalness. Without showing a human face of interpretation, the last iota of compositional genius could not have been conveyed. In the Fifth Concerto this really became a performance beyond criticism. Whether in the tranquillity of the initial solo meditation, or in her much freer playing of the slow movement, surely even the most hardened listener must have been transported. The ’Rondo’ finale sounded exactly as Mozart must have intended – each episode, the orchestral one included, a delightful discovery, each reprise of the theme like the return of an old friend, which left one hoping there would be a new episode, each episode made one regret the absence of the theme. One developed the irrational hope that new, previously unheard episodes would suddenly appear; one took leave of this concerto with regret.

I fear that this time, and notwithstanding that the ’Jupiter’ is perhaps Mozart’s greatest symphony, the orchestral conclusion came as an anticlimax. Perfectly shaped, and exemplifying Sir Colin’s facility at delivering long paragraphs of melody, it functioned very much like the sextet that ends Don Giovanni, an all-passion-spent, major-key release of tension. Sir Colin appeared to tailor his interpretation to this dramatic function – the slow movement was understated, the minuet muted; only the finale was a true tying together of threads in every sense. But this, absolutely, was a credit to Mutter’s transcendental enchantment, and not a criticism of any empirical weakness of either conductor or orchestra.

A quote in the programme compared the LSO to the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. Sir Colin clearly gave the LSO a deeply intuitive comprehension of the rhythmical pulse and architectonic structures of Mozart. This series is a very handsome feather in the LSO’s cap. I was privileged to be there.

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