Mutter Mozart

Wednesday 27 April 2005

Concertos for violin and orchestra:
No.2 in D, K211
No.1 in B flat, K207
No.5 in A, K219

Thursday 28 April 2005

Concertos for violin and orchestra:
No.4 in D, K218
No.3 in G, K216
Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra in E flat, K364

Yuri Bashmet (viola)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 28 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The critic can be sceptical of icons. I have therefore been suspicious of Anne-Sophie Mutter. Everything about her seems too perfect: the obvious glamour and brilliance of her playing – and indeed her person – her gilded career (starting as a prodigy and protege of Karajan) and her enormous success. Were those Beethoven sonatas too indulgent, those romantic concertos too lush, the championing of modern music merely intellectually do-gooding?

Then I heard Mutter play Mozart’s concertos with the LSO and Sir Colin Davis in December 2001, and was above all struck by her impeccable sense of style and measure. The performances were ideally balanced between fidelity and individual projection, between lyrical and dramatic, between soloist and orchestra – not least due to Davis – and bore out Mutter’s own comments on Mozart and showed her ability to present a radically different persona from the Romantic stereotype.

That cycle is among the best concerts I have attended. Consequently Mutter had set herself the highest possible standard to equal. With the London Philharmonic, over three years later, the reduced list of orchestral players suggested a more intimate affair, and it was startling how well this intimacy was conveyed and retained within the largeness of the Festival Hall. These were performances much less projected than the LSO cycle, with the utmost use of soft playing, lyrical velveteen colours, and purity of tone. The interpretations were never showy, never, even in the most daringly virtuoso moments (such as the swift tempo for No.1’s finale or in Joachim’s cadenzas): no trace of ego. Mutter’s playing was operatic: multi-voiced, the soprano and bass registers astonishingly individuated, the mastery of technical demands effortless. The finale of No.5 seemed to float in from another world, and fade back into it at the end. This first concert seemed over in a flash, so enrapturing was the evocation of this idealised world.

For these concerts, Mutter directed the LPO, too. She is gentle and unostentatious and set the beat for the orchestra like turning the ignition key on a car. Thereafter, she seemed more to acknowledge the orchestra than direct it, often listening more than guiding, indicating entries with the minimalist gestures of an inclined head or by eye contact. The score sat on the music stand but seemed a hindrance – not only did she shuffle sheets around during the tuttis, but at one point a leaf fell to the floor and she kicked it out of sight under her dress. The LPO played its heart out; these were already chamber orchestra performances; at many points they sounded like chamber music; the occasional imperfection of ensemble seemed a fair price to pay such sensitivity, for unmediated access, to the better world music takes us into.

So my function as a critic had been redundant for my last two South Bank visits, the other one being Grigory Sokolov – performances that suspend, even dissolve, any analytical facility, and induce a purely intuitive and emotional response.

On the second night, however, Mutter seemed tenser and, paradoxically, more decisive in the first moments of directing No.4, beating out at least six phrases instead of the usual two. The first solo entry was far more projected and attention-grabbing, breaking the mood of enchantment from the previous evening.

But with the silky pianissimo in the second subject, the effortless and tasteful playing in the cadenzas, the mixture of hushed delicacy – notably in the bagpipe passage – and exuberance in the finale, once more we were transported. Mutter’s playing had so much character – expressed so many colours and voices – and it was impossible to imagine Mozart better played, or played with more integrity. But now there was a flicker of doubt, and the straightforwardly seductive nature of No.3 wasn’t wholly winning, either. Equally, flaws of orchestral ensemble resulting from the diffident directing were more apparent, and Mutter entered at a faster speed to that set in the introduction, and there was a heart-stopping lapse in the most exposed passage in the finale. Mutter recovered but seemed unsettled.

She suffered badly in the Sinfonia Concertante, with another lapse in the first movement and a remarkably out-of-tune first entry in the Andante. Indeed, the whole of this work, with the exception of the second half of the slow movement, where the soloists duetted gloriously, was disappointing and the least successful work of the six. Yuri Bashmet seemed ill-at-ease – far inferior to his contribution to the Davis cycle – and there was seldom a true blend between his more woody tone (which seemed, in fact, under-projected) and Mutter’s bright sound. The lack of a conductor was felt even more. It was almost as if Bashmet had intruded on the private music-making. I also began to wonder whether the Davis schedule – three concerts over several day, each with a symphony – was simply more sensible than three concertos per night on consecutive days.

Technical errors are an easy target. Mutter’s integrity, her expert interweaving of happiness and sadness, the modesty of her manner and approach, the grace, may not have been superhumanly perfect, then – but, like Mozart himself, she was perfectly, vulnerably human.

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