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Mutter and the Band

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Dvořák, Violin Concerto (inter alia), A.-S. Mutter, Berlin Philharmonic, M. Honeck
(DG, 2013)

available at Amazon
S. Currier, Time Machines, A.-S. Mutter, New York Philharmonic, M. Francis
(DG, 2011)
Last week was to have featured the National Symphony Orchestra's debut performances of Bohuslav Martinů's first symphony, a Serge Koussevitsky commission from 1942. Any opportunity to hear one of this composer's six symphonies in live performance is welcome -- the last opportunity was no. 6 from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007 -- but the latest city-shuttering snowstorm on Thursday scuttled that plan. The NSO's guest soloist, Anne-Sophie Mutter, was to have played Time Machines, a new violin concerto by Sebastian Currier, only on Thursday night, replaced by Dvořák's violin concerto on Friday and Saturday. The cancellation of the Thursday night concert demanded a reshuffling of the programming, and Mutter generously agreed to play both of these concertos at both of the remaining performances (this review concerns the Saturday performance) -- an arrangement that allowed the contemporary piece to be heard, twice instead of just once for its local premiere, without angering the Friday and Saturday patrons who had paid to hear her play Dvořák. The only disappointed listeners, me and the other person who wanted to hear Martinů, will just have to wait another few years.

Mutter has been a regular with the NSO over the years, and her connection to Christoph Eschenbach has only strengthened that association. The German violinist lends the sheen of her name to many new works for violin, including concertos -- Previn, Gubaidulina, Krzysztof Penderecki, Wolfgang Rihm -- her considerable technique, sense of pitch, and formidable memory are strengths in this area. Currier describes Time Machines, a seven-movement work, as exploring "the relationship between the perception of music and time." The ribbon of time was perhaps reflected in the piece's opening theme, a running motif of buzzing notes -- heard first in the solo then echoed by the violin section, it is accompanied by accented chords both in solo and orchestral forms. The buzzing theme is recalled, in compressed form, in the third movement, a sort of chatty scherzo, begun and ended with cracks of the whip in the percussion section, and in the fourth, where motoric motifs are layered on each other. The same sense of sound marking the passage of time is featured in the second movement where, over lush sustained chords, the solo's jagged shouts ricochet across the orchestra in close-paced echoes, creating one of many beautiful effects in this work. The same themes degrade into clusters in the entropy movement (no. 5), ending in a memorable sort of cadenza where the violinist is answered by many instruments, most memorably the flexatone, and seem stretched out into chords, in a way that recalled the film scores of Hans Zimmer, in the finale. It is not a piece I expect to hear ever again in a live performance, but it was diverting and absorbing the first time around.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, A double delight from Anne-Sophie Mutter and the NSO (Washington Post, February 17)

Peter McCallum, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Mozart: still keeping things fresh (Sydney Morning Herald, February 3)

Clive Paget, Anne-Sophie Mutter: Thankful for what she's got (for now…) (Limelight Magazine, January 21)
The Dvořák violin concerto is a pretty piece, and Mutter plays it very well, but anyone who heard the work the last time the NSO played it, with Augustin Hadelich as soloist, is likely spoiled by that performance as I am. Mutter occupied the piece with her trademark sound, glossy and sexy like the form-fitting gowns she wears -- the throaty wail low on the G string, the acid edge high on the E string, impetuous in the sense of rubato and choice of tempo (a blistering one for the third movement, for example, that did away with the modifier "ma non troppo") -- and my ears were impressed by the polish more than moved. Throughout the evening, Cristian Măcelaru, currently associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and substitute conductor on more than one podium, made a solid NSO debut, showing an easy, supportive hand in both concertos. The revised program kept its opener, the suite from Janáček's delightful opera The Cunning Little Vixen, arranged by Václav Talich, also heard for the first time on an NSO concert. Măcelaru, with restraining gestures, helped keep the NSO's sound at its most evanescent in key passages, allowing charming solos -- the violin's waltz with the harp, the dreamy flute scene with paired solo violins, the mournful viola lament -- to fill the stage. Măcelaru's keen sense of the score kept the folk-like dance sections and sharp brass exclamations all firmly in line, too, for a pleasing overall effect.

Another violinist, Christian Tetzlaff, plays another new concerto, this one by Jörg Widmann, in the next program from the National Symphony Orchestra (February 27 to March 1).

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