Violinist Anne Sophie Mutter pursues what is alive in music. She champions new compositions, and contemporary composers like to write for her. The most recent Mutter commission is Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s “In Tempus Praesens,” a violin concerto. The piece premiered in October, 2007, in Lucerne, Switzerland. Clearly an advocate of today’s music, Mutter’s musical explorations, nevertheless, extend to the baroque period
About two years ago Mutter started using a baroque bow for baroque pieces. The earlier bow is shorter and more curved than contemporary bows. “I wondered why I never tried it before,” she says in a telephone interview from her home in Munich, Germany. “With a baroque, the phrasings in baroque music become obvious, the sound production becomes natural, and the structure of the piece reveals itself. The transparency and inner drive come through. Articulation, energy, and lightness increase, and you get more fluent tempi, especially in second movements.”
Mutter uses only a baroque bow when she simultaneously solos and leads the Camerata Salzburg in a program of baroque music at New Brunswick’s State Theater on Thursday, October 16. The New Brunswick program includes the A minor and E major concertos that appear on her new CD, released in the U.S. earlier this month by Deutsche Grammophon, and adds Bach’s Concerto for two violins and Giuseppe Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Violinist Vilde Vrang joins Mutter as soloist in the double concerto. The identical program was given at New York’s Carnegie Hall on October 13, and is scheduled for Friday, October 17, at Newark’s New Jersey Arts Performing Arts Center.
All the performers, including the 18-member orchestra, use copies of baroque bows. “We don’t use much vibrato,” Mutter says. “We use other tools for making the music speak. You might not know what we’re doing, but you’ll hear it. The Camerata is a small group, the same size Bach used in Coethen.”
The disc pairs two baroque pieces, Johann Sebastian Bach’s A minor and E major violin concertos, with the Gubaidulina commission. “Both Gubaidulina and Bach are very rooted in mathematical structure, and they both have a spiritual relationship with whoever is up there,” Mutter says.
The recording summarizes, in 60 minutes, the development of the violin concerto over the last 300 years. The Bach pieces, played with baroque bows by Mutter and the Trondheim soloists, sparkle with sculpted phrases and brisk tempos. The Gubaidulina, played with modern bows by Mutter and the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev, is scored for a single violin, the solo violin. Violins are absent from the orchestra, which bristles with interstellar percussion effects beyond Bach. For the listener, several hearings are necessary before the Bach-Gubaidulina analogy takes hold.
Asked about simultaneously conducting and performing, Mutter distinguishes between conducting and leading the ensemble. “I’m going to lead [she stresses the word] the orchestra,” she says. “There wouldn’t have been a conductor back then. We work very closely in rehearsal. It’s about breathing together, listening to each other, reacting fast, and being spontaneous.
“One of the most exciting parts of this project is keeping track of what the orchestra does, and making mental notes for the next rehearsal,” Mutter says. “It’s an enormous advantage being ‘primo inter pares’ [first among equals]. It’s more than collaboration. Everybody is responsible. There’s nobody else to blame if something goes wrong. Being there at every instance is very exciting. It’s really chamber music.”
The State Theater performance is one of a set of 10 in the United States with the identical program. When I wonder how the performers keep the music fresh, Mutter candidly says, “That’s not the right question. The question is, how much better can the program get? How much closer can the performance come to your vision of a piece?”
Her answer is consistent with a passage from William Blake that she presents on her website as her motto:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
“It’s not about repeating,” Mutter says. “Successive performances are not the same. The hall plays a role. Acoustics differ. Dynamic possibilities differ from one hall to another. The audience makes a difference. The audience participates. Sometimes you can almost hear the silence in the hall, and it’s wonderful.
“There are different goals with repeated performances of the program. These are things you discuss with the orchestra. They’re things I discuss with myself. Sometimes a new idea occurs to you during the performance, and you don’t try it because you might have a still better idea by the time of the next rehearsal.”
Mutter was born in Rheinfelden, Germany, across the Rhine River from Switzerland, in 1963. She started playing the piano at age five, and soon switched to violin. By the time she was 13, Herbert von Karajan invited her to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. By the time she was 15, she had recorded two Mozart violin concertos with Karajan and his orchestra. She launched her international career in 1979, at age 16, at the Lucerne Festival. The following year she made her American debut with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.
Endowed with a sense of style that extends beyond music, she has turned to Dior for concert dress since she was 16 or 17. She favors long, strapless gowns for performing. She told the San Francisco website “SFist,” “Dior always understood what it means to be a violinist. It’s a work outfit. It’s like a plumber, who has a working outfit.”
Mutter married Detlev Wunderlich, a corporate lawyer, in 1989. The couple had two children. Their daughter, Arabella, was four, and their son, Richard, was one, when Wunderlich died of cancer in 1995.
In 2002 she married pianist-conductor-composer Andre Previn. She was 39; he was 73. Previn wrote several pieces for Mutter, and they often performed together. In 2006 they divorced, but their musical collaboration continues.
Mutter lives in Munich, where her children are in school. Daughter Arabella, now 17, is particularly interested in dance. Son Richard, 14, is interested in piano and sports.
Now 45, Mutter has been known as a virtuoso performer for 30 years. Her devotion to contemporary music dates back 20 years. Yet she continues to grow in all musical directions. In a National Public Radio interview on Bill McGloughlin’s “St. Paul Sunday” on March 4, 2007, she declared that she is not mature enough to play Bach. “I was referring to the six solo sonatas,” she explains in our conversation. “The longer you wait with some things in life, the more holy they get, and the more difficult. For the great master works you’re never ready. We musicians are not the makers of the music; we’re just the servants.”
Some moments are better than others for tackling a monumental piece, Mutter believes. “Let’s take the Berg concerto,” she says. “The piece was Berg’s last completed composition and was a response to the death of Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler. “It was a requiem for both of them. I studied it as teenager. Later, I had my first child. When she was celebrating her first birthday, I realized what it means to lose a child. Something clicked. Life suddenly contributed whatever. I recorded it in Chicago with James Levine. Nothing is totally plannable.”
Mutter, in our telephone conversation is a resilient, responsive person, accessible, attentive, and articulate. She is both sophisticated and educated, and assumes that I am, too. She supposes that I know the meaning of “primo inter pares;” she doesn’t bother spelling “Gubaidulina” for me.
Mutter’s website attempts to present her as a person by adding to the usual tombstone-listing of performances and discography — the site includes a list of her 10 favorite records, her 11 favorite books, and her response to Marcel Proust’s observation, “Tell me what you love, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Her 10 favorite records include songs by Ella Fitzgerald, and three recordings by her ex-husband, Andre Previn. No violin recordings are listed, although piano concerti find a place: Clara Haskil’s Mozart K. 467 and Krystian Zimerman’s recordings of two of the four Rachmaninoff piano concerti.
Her 11 favorite books are an eclectic mix. Among them are Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Time Lost,” Leo Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “Discussions with a Dying Man.” The recurrent themes in the list are love, self-realization, and tolerance.
Similar themes emerge in her list of what she loves. Some of the entries venture outside the box. “Military deed that I admire most: none. How I would like to die: without noticing a thing. The fault for which I have the greatest tolerance: Those that arise from deep love, because these are not real faults. My dream of happiness: That’s my secret.”
Curiously, the list names five favorite authors: Oscar Wilde, W. Somerset Maugham, Thomas Mann, Anton Chekhov, and Heinrich Boll. None of them wrote any of her 11 favorite books. Maybe, tending the list for inconsistencies is too much for Mutter’s intricate schedule. To interview her I am in a queue where each person is granted 20 minutes maximum. I’m glad that her website is full of additional tidbits.
Camerata Salzburg, Thursday, October 16, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Anne Sophie Mutter and Vilde Frang on violin with program featuring works of Bach. $30 to $75. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.