Mutter shines on debut

April 1, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Billed as a 2012 season special event, the Sydney Symphony invited Stradivarius wielding German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter for a two-night season playing the Beethoven violin concerto, her Australian debut…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Vladamir Ashkenazy rehearse pic: Henry Benjamin

Whether she is the best violinist in the world is a moot point but she is certainly in that company. When the word spread among concertgoers last year that she was coming, the tickets were swooped upon and gobbled up within days.

I managed to gobble one ticket, which perched me high enough in the stalls to launch my hang glider – if I had one. What everybody in that sell-out crowd wondered was, would this elegant, glamorous and much decorated forty eight year old musician live up to the hype.

The answer was a resounding yes. What distinguishes a live performance from a recording is the risk the musicians take of a calamity and how they appear. Mutter embraced both fearlessly. She sailed on to the stage in a poured-into gold strapless gown, her 1710 Strad casually hanging by its neck from her long fingers.

She earlier told a press conference that she no longer buys new performance outfits, preferring to recycle those acquired over the past 20 years. Tick the box that she can still get into them, easily. The man siting next to me said she’d look good in a potato sack. I was inclined to agree. But she’d come to play the Beethoven, which she regards as the crown of violin concertos. After the lengthy orchestral introduction which threatens to become a symphony in itself, Mutter raised her bow like a signaling wand – and the angels took over from there.

I hate being this blown away by a performance but I was powerless to resist. Her tonal colour, her peerless technique and her phrasing led me to think that I had never heard the concerto before. And those trills! The slow movement, which is the heart of the work, was a golden as Mutter’s gown.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Eventually, the angels returned Mutter to mortality and to thunderous applause. Yes, I know there have been grumbles about how much she was being paid to perform, but Elton John or Roger Federer would have charged more. Mutter defends her fees by reminding people that she runs and supports two important charities.

A word, a very big word actually, about the Sydney Symphony under Ashkenazy. It provided Mutter with tight and superbly balanced playing which never out-gunned the soloist. The maestro does not mind leading the supporting cast. It is the music he worries about, not who is being noticed the most.

But noticed he was in the second half of the program when a massive orchestra was assembled to play the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich. Although this is not what you would call a crowd-pleasing classic it is Shostakovich’s most popular symphony.

Composed in 1937, it was ostensibly aimed at wining favour back from the Stalinist regime, which had threatened to arrest him for his ‘subversive’ fourth symphony. The fifth, therefore, was more conventional in character, with four distinctly separate movements. This is not the sort of music you would choose as background for a cocktail party but in a concert hall it is both exciting and soul wringing. At its first outing in Russia it was joyously received by the audience, many of whom were driven to tears in the third Largo movement. The SSO shone in this performance, with some outstanding work from the flutes and oboe to say nothing of the tree-felling swipes from the timpanist – who had the last say in the tumultuous ending.

Before her first rehearsal with the SSO, Mutter held a Q&A with media:

Anne-Sophie Mutter talks to the media from Henry Benjamin on Vimeo.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.  


2 Responses to “Mutter shines on debut”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Mutter is one of the last from the school of musical finesse to whom Stern belonged. Without delving into the romantic extentions known at Misha Ellman and, mostly, Heifetz, Mutter plays her passion and adulation for Beethoven the way I would have if I were a violonist.
    ( speaking of Misha Ellman, Graucho Marx noted that, when Misha was born in Russia to a poor family, the only short text the proud parents could telegraph their relatives in Amerike was ” Misha accomplished !” )
    Prokofiev’s 5th was butchered by the American critics at the time of its first performances and they were right. Yet, there is some artistic historic value in the expressions of proletcultism and Ashkenazi would know best how to bring it out.

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