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Review: Anne-Sophie Mutter Triumphs Through Technique and Keen Interpretive Powers

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, March 6, 2018

Anne-Sophie Mutter takes command. Those straggling late-comers? Let them shuffle in — she begins her performance as if they aren’t there, immediately seizing control of the room and setting the tone. Those (alas, seemingly inevitable) horrific cell phone intrusions? She is not alarmed, nor deterred for a second. Again, she raises her bow, and the distractions fall away.

This is a performer of tremendous focus and resolve, and her program on Sunday at Carnegie Hall, with longtime pianist Lambert Orkis provided numerous moments that convinced me I was in the presence of one of today’s greatest living artists. The program, which would be an immense undertaking for mere mortals — balancing two warhorses of the meat-and-potatoes literature, Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor and Brahms’s Sonata No. 2 in A Major, with two works by living composers. Both of which, the world premiere of André Previn’s The Fifth Season and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, were written expressly for Mutter.

Undoubtedly, these contemporary composers are drawn to Mutter not merely because she possesses the technique to play anything they could dream up, but because her interpretive powers — her ability to put the music across with tremendous conviction — inspires their trust. Previn (applauding appreciatively in a box seat when acknowledged by the performers) has written a fascinating, if puzzling, piece for violin and piano. Responding to Mutter’s request for a sequel to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, he hasn’t quite made clear his take on the assignment. Vivaldi’s famous programmatic violin concerti are for violin, strings and continuo, each correlating to a sonnet about one of the four actual seasons. Previn has titled his piece The Fifth Season, but not provided many clues as to how this work for violin and piano relates to Vivaldi.

Nonetheless, Mutter and Orkis attack the piece with certitude, and Mutter dispatches the violin part’s grab-bag of virtuosic demands with aplomb. Previn exploits the extremes of the instrument in this sectional work, with one foot rooted in jazzy flavors, but another frequently wading into more free chromatic language. The piece contains a great variety of moods, and the structure of the piece is convincing, perhaps expressing the highs and lows, the sublime and the violence, part and parcel of any given season.

Mutter returns to the stage alone to play Bach’s great unaccompanied Partita No. 2 in D Minor, capped by its individually celebrated Chaconne, with great ownership of this towering masterpiece. Her true mastery shines in her performance of this suite of dances that has challenged and rewarded generations of musicians — it’s impossible to imagine it being played more convincingly. It goes without saying that her playing here is technically flawless — the unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas are a minefield of double- and triple-stops (calling upon the violinist to play chords and multiple voices at once) — but the Partita’s true test is an artistic one, how to make rhetorical sense out of this maze of notes. In her unwavering stage presence, yes, but moreover, a clear eye on the musical big picture, Mutter is a great orator, communicating with a Stradivarius rather than a microphone.

Her Bach has driving rhythmic underpinnings, rousing in the quick Gigue, but also rich in varied tonal colors, explored most luxuriously in the contemplative Sarabande. Her delivery of the Chaconne, a formidable set of variations that journeys from darkness to light and back again, harnesses an inexorable momentum, traveling from one variation to the next with compelling impetus. I came away contemplating how in this solo violin composition, Bach didn’t just write music for the violin, but he wrote genuine violin music, something innate to the idioms of the fiddle. In Mutter’s hands, this is art with the force of nature.

Mutter’s energetic reading of Brahms’s second sonata is a soloistic one, with Orkin taking a backseat at the piano, an approach that sacrifices a genial dialogue between piano and violin for a sweeping dynamism. Mutter’s sense of the piece’s architecture is hard to argue with. But Orkin seems relegated to the position of accompanist, rather than equal partner (it’s worth noting that Brahms titled the piece, as was generally the custom, a Sonata for Piano and Violin, rather the reverse), generally leans into his right hand, both to keep up with the lithe tempi and to keep the texture supple, sacrificing some of the counterpoint and cross rhythms in the piano part. But, again, Mutter’s extraordinary palette of colors, especially the burnished tone with which she played the opening theme of the last movement, Allegretto grazioso, brought something special to the piece.

Polish avant-garde composer Pendercki composed his hefty second violin sonata for Mutter in 1999. “Lots of notes,” she remarked with a wink to the audience while arranging her score on the music stand. “A gentle warning.” Indeed, the piece’s five movements run the gamut, encompassing extended, darkly somber stretches that build into anguish (the pianist twice called upon to collide with the keyboard using his whole forearm), as well as lighter movements that might be mistaken for Prokofiev. The substantial middle Notturno: Adagio provides Mutter a long-arced essay, employing every imaginable expressive tool (and seemingly, every note) available to the instrument. Penderecki’s creation is difficult to fully grasp on first listen, at times long-winded as he laboriously works through the complete implications of his wide-ranging ingredients, but Orkin’s passionate support, and Mutter’s authoritative sense of the destination, were convincing in the end.

The appreciative audience was rewarded with a salving palette-cleanser, a transcription of Schubert’s perennial Serenade, which the duo played with melancholy and a gypsy-like spontaneity.


Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin, and Lambert Orkis, piano, in recital at Carnegie Hall on March 4, 2018.

ANDRÉ PREVIN The Fifth Season for Violin and Piano (World Premiere, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall)

BACH Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor

BRAHMS Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100


SCHUBERT “Ständchen” from Schwanengesang, D. 957, No. 4 (arr. Mischa Elman)


Cover: Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis in recital at Carnegie Hall; photo: Steve J. Sherman.


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