Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter stresses authenticity, dedication and scholarship.
By Ben Finane
Photographys by Harald Hoffman
Ever since her international debut at the Lucerne Festival in 1976, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, this season’s artist-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, has sustained an exceptional career in classical music. Her discography of more than sixty albums includes the U.S. release of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas (Deutsche Grammophon) with longtime recital partner and American pianist Lambert Orkis; Mutter calls the relationship a “luxury.” In 2008 the violinist established the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation to support promising young musicians worldwide.
Listen’s arrival at her Upper East Side hotel room interrupted Mutter’s preparation for her most recent commission, Wolfgang Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel, which would see its world premiere in November of last year. Afterward, within the ten seconds it took the interviewer to catch the elevator, Mutter had returned vigorously to the Rihm.
I was enjoying your Stravinsky Concerto en ré [Philharmonia Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon] in the office earlier today — from ’88. It was very fresh, and reminded me that sometimes players can get stuck playing Stravinsky ‘like Stravinsky’ or ‘Mozartean’ Mozart, ‘fiery Vivaldi,’ ‘pitiless Bach,’ et cetera. Then these ostensibly ‘authentic’ interpretations not only become cliché but can also be a trap.
I think once you think you have found a formula, then you are actually in a very fatal position; because it will almost, unavoidably so, numb your senses for reinvention, for reevaluation. I don’t think there is such a thing as an ‘authentic’ interpretation because there are too many layers of importance in a musical piece. That you could possibly bring all of them to life at a given single moment or performance! I’ve learned quite a bit through talking and living with living composers, especially ones who are performers themselves, that they are astonishingly open-minded toward different viewpoints, different tempi. According to the musicians they are working with, the different skills of orchestras, there are particular characteristics of bringing out the narrative qualities of music or the more technical oriented skills, depending on acoustics in the hall.... So what I’m saying is the moment you think, ‘This has worked yesterday, it has worked ten years ago, why shouldn’t I repeat it from now on? — this is my recipe,’ it’s deadly. It’s too dogmatic. Music can only be an essay of reinvention and reassessing what you have done — why you have done it and why you want to have a different look at it.
You’ve done much work with many different composers over the decades. Are there certain composers you feel drawn back to again and again?
Ja, if Witold [Lutosławski] had lived, he would have written a concerto for me, which he dearly promised, and there were some sketches. And I’m grateful that he had orchestrated Partita while in the process of trying, but then unfortunately God took him away. So with Vitold, definitely, and if you look at the list of composers [Currier, Dutilleux, Gubaidulina, Lutosławski, Moret, Penderecki, Previn, Rihm] you will see that I always at least have a second piece commissioned; in the case of Rihm it was a concerto, but in most other cases it was a chamber music piece, and I’m still hoping that Mrs. Gubaidulina is going to one day accept my commission and write a piece for violin, aquaphone and whatever else. I have seen her perform on aquaphone in a piece for two aquaphones and cellists, and these spheric sounds, played with a double bass bow or as a percussion instrument, have fascinated me. We just need instruments between these registers.
[French pianist] Pierre-Laurent Aimard told me that his early years with Ensemble InterContemporain saved him from what could have been ‘the poisonous life of a soloist.’ Do you find similar musical solace in chamber music or larger groups?
Explain more [laughing] about the poisonous life of a soloist, please?
He said that in his younger years he could have gone two roads. He could have immediately started playing solo rep —
Yeah, two hundred concerts.
— the Ravel Concerto twenty times a year —
— but that ultimately he negotiated a flexible position with the Ensemble for eighteen years and that helped him because he maybe wasn’t mature enough yet, and it also made him more well-rounded as a player.
That’s a great opportunity. In a way — of course I hadn’t the luxury of soloing with one of the great composers and conductors of our time, Pierre Boulez, for so long and so exclusively — but in a certain way my relationship with Maestro [Herbert] von Karajan when I was very young helped me not only to grow artistically, but he watched very carefully over the amount of concerts I gave. And I did grow slowly according to my age, my skills, but also according to an ever-growing but slowly growing repertoire.
We know von Karajan as a great conductor, though for some he is (wrongly) dismissed as a ‘showman.’ Von Karajan was not only a mentor to you but I see from your ‘favorite records’ list [online at Anne-Sophie-Mutter.de] that he holds three of your top ten: Bruckner Symphonies, his La bohème [both Berlin Philharmonic, DG] and his Johann Strauss — also his Planets is my favorite [both Vienna Philarmonic, Decca]. Perhaps you could try to quantify his greatness.
If you ask the record companies, he’s still selling more recordings than the living conductors. [Universal confirms that Herbert von Karajan is indeed its best-selling conductor and, moreover, best-selling artist overall. —Ed.] That has to do with this amazingly high level of music making, and with the generally timeless quality of his recordings, although most interpretations have a date on them just as most photos have a date on them. But there is a timeless quality of search, deep emotion and beauty. And although his Baroque music from the eighties is not the approach of today and the so-called ‘authentic’ way to play, still his greatness will withstand the changes of taste and time because he was able to meld an ensemble like the Berlin Philharmonic into one mind, one spirit, one soul. And the refinement of playing, of listening to each other and being attuned to each other is something we do not find anymore because of practical circumstances: the rehearsal time today is just very different from the seventies and eighties. He would do section rehearsals (only the celli, only the violas, only the brass), and at the end of these — sometimes weeks of rehearsals — when everything came together, when the puzzle suddenly formed the big picture, there was a closeness, a togetherness of understanding of the core of the piece, which is absolutely unachievable.
Unachievable without that level....
Without that level of intense rehearsal, but also without that level of very intense dedication. And although we have this perception of him as this jet-setting maestro — which he was, let’s face it. He was the first classical musician who really achieved worldwide fame and he had a glamorous lifestyle: he had this beautiful, young French model woman, you know; he was driving racecars, that’s correct; he was sailing one of only three very large sailing ships (the second is still owned by the king of Spain, the third escapes my knowledge); and I have flown with him in his Lear jet — boy, you had to throw up because what he did with altitude changes was just horrible! He was a fascinating person, and that’s one of the reasons of his fame, but deep down he was a total, dedicated humble man who was not at all blinded by his success. He was one of the most humble and shyest people I’ve ever met. And that, I guess, is a big part of his greatness, apart from having brought two generations of musicians on stage! Two generations of singers have gone through his school and through his dedication to bring them on stage and let them do their thing. I worked with him for thirteen years — up until his death — and I was the only violinist he played with during that period. So there’s much more to him as a musician than just glorious conducting, there’s also the mentor side, something which is dearly missed these days. There are very few conductors who have the time — or want to take the time — to look out for a young generation of soloists who dearly need a musical mentor and a mentor with whom over the years they can develop their life.
You have been focusing on the younger generation of strings soloists with the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation [which seeks to provide players with teachers, mentors and instruments].
What I try to encourage in the young generation (between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five) is an idealistic thought process and the patience to think of a long life in music. Although our goal is to help the upcoming soloists, sometimes we have musicians who I happily have to reeducate what their understanding of the role of a musician is. I would like to see a generation of soloists who see themselves as musicians. ‘He is a soloist, ergo he is a great musician; and he is a chamber player, ergo he is second-rate’ — that is a tragedy; it’s such a false conception and it will breed generations of unhappy violinists. We just have to fill the role which is given to us and make the best out of it.
And that can be different for different players.
For different reasons, for different players. And all is of equal importance.
In his interview with Listen, Maurizio Pollini said ‘Every great composer is at the same time Classical and Romantic.’ Have you found this bridging of aesthetic within your own study of repertoire?
Definitely. Think of Bach, where of course the clearness and cleanness of architecture should stand in the foreground. But you cannot remove passion from that music — you just have to give it a different face. Knowing that Bach was once arrested because his improvisation on the organ was too outrageous, I mean that tells it all. And look at the number of children! Do you think this man hasn’t led a full life? You will find all of that in his music [check out Pere Portabella’s meditative film The Silence Before Bach —Ed.]. But of course stylistically there are boundaries. You cannot treat Bach like you would treat Tchaikovsky, that’s clear, but shaving off emotion just because this man was born in the seventeen hundreds, this is a very strange concept to me! And the nonexistence of vibrato doesn’t mean that if he had been born later, he wouldn’t have used it in a subtle way.
Had he had a piano at his disposal —
He would have composed differently.
What I try to encourage in the young generation is an idealistic thought process and the patience to think of a long life in music.
You’re a proponent of contemporary music. Why does this gap between twentieth- and twenty-first-century music and music of previous centuries remain for audiences?
That they are always slightly behind in their taste and —
But I would say more than slightly, even.
Yeah, but that’s just the way it is. Isn’t it with us — who might not be that closely affiliated to the painters’ and the sculptors’ world — the same? Although I’m very interested and may be relatively well-educated in contemporary paintings, still there are a lot of moments when I stand in front of a painting and just haven’t the foggiest idea. And it’s normal that us mortals, we will always be decades behind the creators of great art. I have seen an increasing audience for contemporary music. If I think back thirty years, I do remember that there were people storming out of a Prokofiev symphony, which you would never see today. So we have to be more forgiving with audiences and we have to lend a helping hand with pre-concert lectures, which do make a tremendous difference in the appreciation of contemporary music. We just have to step in — where the school system is failing — as much as we can.
I wonder if you might discuss the violinists you took inspiration from, many of whom the younger generation of violinists won’t have the opportunity to hear live.
Because they are long dead, many of them I didn’t get the chance to hear live, like the recordings of Mischa Elman — the Mendelssohn Concerto — which are just tremendous. I heard David Oistrakh live when I was six years old and that left, of course, an enormous impression — the sound colors, the warmth, the presence on stage — it was the first concert I attended. He is way up there with my heroes. And then I was lucky enough to hear the late Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern, of course. I am concerned that we are entering an age where not only all the ketchup and mustards, because they are new, are better, but there is a new generation of musicians that seriously thinks that because the new Bohème is out, the one with Karajan, Freni and Pavarotti isn’t valid anymore, and that concerns me quite a bit. Because never has it been easier to access all of these recordings, and funnily enough, the view is directly frontal, as if music has not existed in the last century. If there wouldn’t have been great performers who have played with great personal insight, with great risk-taking — you might dislike it but at least it does something to you. At least it evokes something, it provokes something in the listener. And that is what is important and that is the only aspect of being a performer which keeps these pieces alive over the centuries. It’s a different viewpoint, it’s your viewpoint. It’s you daring to be personal.
And it’s the greatness of these works that permits so many —
Many viewpoints. As long as you have one.
Yeah. Is that a problem now?
[Laughing.] ‘Yeah, I don’t want to offend. Neither too fast nor too slow. Neither too loud nor too soft. Something which is going to please everybody and if we are lucky I’ll take a little of Martha Argerich and I’ll mix it with maybe Rubinstein — oh yeah and Kissin did it that way and that worked so I’ll try to kind of play it like them.’ But of course it’s false, because it’s not my own. It’s not authentic; it’s not genuine.
So young players must take works tabula rasa and —
And know more about what they are playing, know more of the repertoire around it, where it comes from. For me, an eye-opener was, finally, after having played the ‘Spring’ Sonata [Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24] at an early age, when I suddenly looked at the previous sonata, Op. 23, and both these sonatas were published under the same opus in Beethoven’s time. And you only understand ‘Spring’ if you see the darkness of the previous sonata, how undecided he was. He was experimenting with Baroque elements and suddenly there comes this revelation of: Spring. Looking only at ‘Spring’ itself, I was always — boy, I was young and stupid — I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s very pretty, but so what?’ But when you see it in context and understand where it comes from, it has suddenly a totally different meaning. And that is what very often is lacking in musical education: the reference points, the global repertoire, where the composer came from, musically speaking, early works, middle works, late works, to put it in perspective. Very often students look at me and say, ‘Orchestra score? Why do I need an orchestra score?’ For God’s sake, if you play a violin concerto it is with orchestra! So you should know — it’s like you would be part of a Shakespeare play and know only your own role. This is deadly! Nothing genius, but to some it comes as a revelation.
Also from your top-ten list: tell me what attracts you to Ella Fitzgerald.
Well, how she uses time, her understanding of rhythm.
Being behind the beat?
Well, being behind the beat but not really being behind. Being in front but really not pushing the tempo. Holding it but giving it that kick of impatience, something we can only learn from in classical music because what can we do? Not much within the bar.
Yeah. Within the bar line, that is where you can move and give an indication of what lies under the skin of the piece. It’s agogic [stressing a note through prolonged duration], which is a kind of rubato; it’s dynamics; and it is sound color. Time, dynamic and color. And all of that, put into the style frame in which you are operating, is not much. And therefore the subtlety of the way [Fitzgerald] phrases, how she’s able to keep a long-spun musical idea, and it’s all so easy, it flows so naturally — it’s effortless but it’s ever so musical.
Music can only be an essay of reinvention and reassessing what you have done....
So she’s able to go beyond the classical measure and keep the horizontal line.
She makes it feel free, although it all adds up at the end; it’s totally symmetrical.
Would you consider pursuing conducting down the road?
No, definitely not. Leading is one thing, conducting is something totally different.
Tell me the difference between the two.
I opened the season last month [October 2010] in Chicago with Maestro [Riccardo] Muti. Maestro didn’t feel well and canceled at twenty past seven. So they came backstage and asked me if I would feel comfortable leading the Beethoven Concerto from the violin. I’ve played it for decades, but never led it from the violin. It is different. I’ll never forget when I gave the upbeat to the oboe and the percussionist, their eyes were as big as owls’. The orchestra was fabulous and supportive and it was a joint effort, but that’s about as far as I would go with repertoire, the Beethoven Concerto. It’s a very large orchestra to keep together and to unite in thought. It’s leading because most of the time I’m playing, therefore my inspiration and my pre-work has to be on a totally different level from conducting because I have to make them want to play and make them be with me although I’m busy myself. They have to know where to go. I think it sharpens the senses of my colleagues in the orchestra and they will be much more closely attached to me musically. Hopefully. [Laughs.]
So when leading, having the instrument in hand is a real benefit.
Leading also allows the orchestra to take much more of a part in the dialogue process and be like a chamber music player. As Mendelssohn used to say about chamber music: it’s a dialogue between sophisticated friends. And that’s very much what it will be without a conductor, because they don’t have an interpreter in between what I might want and what he thinks is proper and whatever not, but it’s very much them leaning forward, having taken in all they can in rehearsals, and then just going for it in the concert. [Pauses.] I think leadership very much has to result in being inspirational and bringing colleagues to a point where they really want to contribute as much as they can from themselves to the evening.
And now I’m thinking of [conductorless chamber orchestra] Orpheus. Does an ensemble always need a conductor when it reaches a certain size? Is there a cut-off point where you say, ‘Okay, now you have to have someone with a baton’?
I think most of the time a conductor really is very useful. [Laughs.] And I don’t mean that in the wrong way. Really. A great conductor can do wonders with an orchestra. But, having said that, there is repertoire like the Mozart concerti — and I would not stretch it further than that — where, as in the tradition of the composer himself doing it, a small ensemble is very well off without a conductor, because you can very much see it as a primus inter pares ensemble play.
The beautiful stoicism of Brahms’s Nänie defies absolute categories.Read More
By Thomas May
Respighi’s set of variations is cast away for his moreRead More
By David Hurwitz
Mascagni delivers beautiful music, libretto be damned.Read More
By Robert Levine