What a major concert organizer like Washington Performing Arts Society wants for its season opening gala is the sizzle of star power. It got that, wrapped in a form-fitting silver-grey gown, in the person of German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who appeared with members of Camerata Salzburg in a mostly Bach program on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Mutter is a virtuosa of the first order, one of the most famous musicians of her generation, with several impressive recordings to her credit, among them Mozart, more Mozart, and Brahms and Schumann. The Deutsche Grammophon publicity juggernaut has timed Mutter's latest release (review forthcoming) to coincide with her tour with Camerata Salzburg, playing two-thirds of the CD's program. It was a shame not to be able to hear the new violin concerto In tempus praesens written by Sofia Gubaidulina for Mutter, but a performance requires far more than the score of musicians on the stage.
Bach, Violin Concertos / Gubaidulina, In Tempus Praesens, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Trondheim Soloists, LSO
(released October 7, 2008)
Online Score, Bach Violin Concertos
Mutter has already recorded the Bach violin concertos, back in the 1980s, when she was a lot younger and the ideas of the historically informed performance movement were less widely accepted than they are now. In a feature on her Web site, Mutter says that she approaches the works differently now because of the "exciting findings of period performance practice," although "authenticity is in any case a Utopian notion." In short, she uses a reproduction of a Baroque bow but decided against gut strings, although she does use a "soft wound A string" that has a warmer tone like that of gut strings. Besides hardware, stylistic characteristics include a "sparing use of vibrato" and "flowing speeds," both of which were in evidence in this performance. Mutter's tempi in the outer movements of all of the Bach concertos bordered on uncomfortably fast, sometimes leaving the orchestral players slightly in the dust.
That urge for speed also underscored the differences between Mutter and her young protégée, Vilde Frang, who played second fiddle to her in the double violin concerto (not on the recording). Where Mutter's tone was electric, edgy, and athletic, Frang seemed a little underpowered, polite, and well behaved. Which you think is more appropriate for Bach is a matter of taste. (Frang, a Norwegian, has received a scholarship award from the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation.) While the fast movements were fleet, Mutter also tended to exaggerate the slowness of the slow movemnts, although still with a lilting pace, as in the second movement of the first concerto. Mutter compressed her burr-edged tone so that it almost evaporated completely at some moments, although her guttural vibrato still appeared from time to time, like a consonantal stopping of sound. It was too present in the slow movement of the double violin concerto. There was not much in the way of ornamentation either, at least in the solo parts, although Mutter did play an interesting, extended cadenza in the first movement of the E minor concerto.
The concert ended with a chamber orchestra arrangement of Tartini's "Devil's Trill" sonata (op. 1, no. 4), which was largely unencumbered by period performance practice concerns. Here Mutter let loose with a more raucous G string tone and wallowed in the gypsy and folk flavors of the third and fourth movements, complete with rollicking folk accelerando and trills that were absolutely devilish. The encore was the second movement ("Air") from the third orchestral suite, played with a complete absence of affectation, so associated with the work in its anachronistic incarnation as the "Air on the G String" made by August Wilhelmj. Mutter displayed fearless control of tone, clamping down on the vibrato, and playing in a quiet, self-determined, understated way. It was exactly what was needed to cleanse the palate after the Tartini.
Mark J. Estren, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Brilliant at Baroque (Washington Post, October 13)
Stephen Brookes, Giving new meaning to Bach (Washington Times, October 13)
Needless to say, we cannot wait for the next major event in the WPAS Classical series, the recital by legendary pianist Maurizio Pollini (October 29, 8 pm). Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin are on the program.