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S & H Concert Review

Mozart & Anne-Sophie Mutter London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis. Barbican, December 5th, 7th and 9th, 2001 (CC).

Anne-Sophie Mutter is a remarkable musician: she has, at her finest, the ability to make whole audiences hang on her every note or be overwhelmed by her formidable virtuosity. This series of the complete concertos for violin and orchestra was very much her triumph.

In the first of their three concerts, Sir Colin Davis prepared the way with a punchy, lively account of the Symphony No. 32 in G, K318. In some ways, this is the perfect curtain raiser: it could easily be an opera overture. The second subject was notably suave, but some less than perfect ensemble robbed the climax of the first section of its excitement. Although the Andante flowed gracefully along, it was somewhat lacking in character: it was left to the return of the opening material to erase memories of this.

The place of the violin concertos in Mozart's output has long been an uncertain one. They have never really attained the popularity of the mature piano concertos (or the horn concertos, come to that). Certainly, if one was to believe Lindsay Kemp's programme notes, the first concerto is merely enjoyable (' ... good-natured though it may be, this is in some ways a rather serious and formal first attempt'). If Anne-Sophie Mutter had read this, it was obvious she did not believe it. At no point did one doubt her advocacy of this work, even if technically there was a sense of her playing herself in (after some strong and commanding opening solo statements, there were passages of somewhat suspect tuning). The problems came from the orchestra, especially some notably rough-and-ready horn playing to begin with. By the second movement, these problems had been ironed out, and Mutter provided some beautifully floated, almost vocal lines; by the third movement, caution went firmly to the wind and there was a palpable feeling of Mutter enjoying herself. Possibly the most striking facet of this performance were Mutter’s cadenzas, which were gripping from first to last.

The Second Concerto dates from 1775, two years after the First. But for a composer as prolific as Mozart, a lot can happen in that amount of time - and did. With just a twenty minute interval to separate them, one could hear the compositional advances Mozart had made in that period. There was more than a hint of chamber music about this performance. The orchestra was predominantly delicate, and when Mutter thinned her tone to a half-voice, the effect was utterly spellbinding. Again, lines really sang in the second movement: Mutter was gripping, if not at times truly hypnotic. The cadenza was a thing of beauty. The finale was spirited, having a real spring in its step, Mutter articulating superbly. Only some sluggish horn playing brought back memories of certain parts of the first half. The audience clearly understood that this was a special performance and gave Mutter the reception she deserved.

It was hardly surprising, given Mutter's star status, that a good number of people left at that point. A shame, though. Davis’ ‘Prague‘ Symphony has much to recommend it (although possibly not to authenticists, who may well have thrown their hands up in despair at the Romantic conception of the Andante). Sir Colin ensured the introductory Adagio was as imposing as it could be, and that the ensuing Allegro was full of spirit. The Finale was full of big, dramatic strokes, and not without a little humour, but there is no doubt that this series was already beginning to belong to Mutter.

The idea of, on Friday, playing the next two violin concertos flanked by the same two pieces, then returning on Sunday with both pieces changed is slightly bizarre. Did we really have to have the Symphonies Nos. 32 and 38 again on Friday? Perhaps the LSO management had anticipated a less than full house on Wednesday and so the music would be fresh for the other half that was to come along later in the week? Whatever the case, there was a strange sense of déja vu as one registered the opening was not quite as tight as earlier in the series and one had the impression that the lack of character of the central Andante might be due to Davis’ non-authenticist approach. The Prague did have a markedly different effect, though, even if the interpreters and interpretation remained constant: after Mutter on top form in the Third and Fourth Concertos, it could only come as the evening’s ‘wind-down’.

Mozart’s Third Concerto in G, K216 of June 1775 (only two years after the second) is the most popular of the canon. The change in the orchestra was immediate, the opening tutti better prepared than the whole of the preceding Symphony No. 32. The playing was alert, Davis’ accompaniments immaculate (the wind in particular excelled themselves). It was as if the very presence of Anne-Sophie Mutter was enough to transform them. Perhaps they knew what was going to happen: the way that she magically turned phrases; the way she projected her lower range in a husky but never over-powerful manner; the way the cadenza once more became a crucial part of the argument. The final two movements were remarkable, despite a fudged initial wind entry threatening to spoil Mutter’s perfect opening gambit in the Adagio. Her level of inspiration almost seemed on a par with Mozart’s. She spun her melodic line like a spider spins a silken web. Portamento was used sparingly and always for the sweetest of expressive purposes. The final Rondo was successful because some of that self-same intensity came across the break between movements so the jollity was tinged with an underlying sense of heavenly serenity.

Dating from the same year, the Fourth Concerto is somewhat more outgoing in nature, a fact Mutter brought to the fore. She has the most amazing ability to bring multiple, seemingly endless shades of meaning to even the simplest arpeggio figure. Her entry in the slow movement was a moment of luminous revelation that ushered in real dialogue with the orchestra. The alternations of the gallant and the resolute, which provide the last movement’s compositional dynamic, were perfectly judged.

Both the Third and Fourth Concertos represented examples of the Art of Mutter at its highest and left one tingling with anticipation for the final concert on Sunday 9th. Originally, both the Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola (with violist Yuri Bashmet) and the Fifth Violin Concerto were to be in the first half, leaving only the ‘Jupiter’ for the second. Did the fear of a repeat exodus to end the series prompt the management to put the Violin Concerto into the second half, thus forcing people to stay after the interval?

In many ways, the Sinfonia concertante in E flat, K364 deserves space to be heard and then digested, so the decision did make musical sense. Of the two soloists, Mutter was by far the most confident. This is a concerto which by its very nature invites the listener to make comparisons between the two soloists (the first movement mainly consists of exchanges between the two instruments, rather than having them play together). The fact that Bashmet used music whereas Mutter did not pointed to the aural truth that Mutter could play more freely than Bashmet’s more score-bound rendition allowed: nowhere was this more evident than in the heaven-sent flow of inspiration that makes up the slow movement.

Almost a relief, then, to hear Mutter unfettered and on top form for the final Violin concerto, No. 5 in A, K219, after a break. Even the orchestra played better, possibly in acknowledgement of Mutter being once more free. Her playing was characterised by vigour and a feeling that with this concerto she had really arrived home. The beautiful legato and the spinning of a seemingly unending melody in the Adagio was almost scuppered by some orchestral moments of uncertainty, only to be rectified by a stylish finale, complete with visceral Turkish/Gypsy elements. This was a ravishing account which in many ways would have crowned the series and left us with the most memorable sounds echoing in our minds (indeed, a fair few people did leave at this point). But to close with Mozart’s final symphony is to give the composer the final say, and perhaps that is most appropriate. Certainly Mutter’s almost self-effacing platform manner at the end of each of the concertos would indicate that she would approve of this reading.

The Jupiter, of all of Mozart’s symphonies, responds well to Davis’ big-boned approach. Despite an Andante cantabile that was actually an Adagio cantabile (taken firmly in six rather than in three), it was largely successful, the last movement bringing Mozart’s contrapuntal effusiveness to the fore. At the end of the day, though, people came to See and Hear Anne-Sophie Mutter: and an unforgettable experience it was, too.


Colin Clarke


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