It’s a quarter past nine on the morning of July 7 when Anne-Sophie Mutter warmly beckons me into the hush of her hotel suite on the fourth floor of London’s Savoy Hotel. Three bombs have just exploded on the London Underground. Another will detonate about half a mile away within the hour. Police and ambulance sirens are wailing along The Strand below us. Rush hour is beginning to take place in slow motion. Phone networks are down. The atmosphere is surreal. Yet high above the double-decker buses, we’re cocooned in sunlight subdued by tinted double-glazing, with no knowledge of the disaster that’s unfolding around us. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ asks Mutter’s press officer. ‘I’ll need to wash up a cup.’
An alarm clock is positioned on a table in front of the sofa where we sit, providing a constant reminder that Mutter won’t be in town for long. She’s here to record Mozart’s five concertos and the Sinfonia concertante with Yuri Bashmet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s part of her year-long homage to Mozart’s 250th anniversary in which she’s also touring and recording 16 violin sonatas with her long-term recital partner Lambert Orkis, in addition to four piano trios with cellist Daniel Müller-Schott and her husband, André Previn. The clock’s ticking. ‘We finished recording the concertos yesterday, working in chronological order from K207, day by day, hour by hour, climbing up the mountain,’ she explains. ‘With K207 and K211 the orchestra is still an accompanying entity, so it’s easy to get into the flow and find a natural crescendo through each work. I just hope I have enough oxygen left on this mountain climb for the sonatas.’
The great outdoors seems a long way from the sofa where Mutter relaxes, dressed casually in a pink summer cardigan over a tiger-coloured blouse. Yet much has been made of the way in which this Bavarian-born violinist from the Black Forest scales mountains – both literally and metaphorically – not least by The Times’s writer by whom she’s just been interviewed 10 minutes before me. Mutter tells me she’s a ‘mountain-climbing personality’, clearly taken with her metaphor and perhaps with The Times’s past praise of her ‘swift and relentless’ ascent from Herbert von Karajan’s wunderkind to carving out her reputation as a serious and self-assured leader at the forefront of both contemporary and core repertoire. Indeed, her ascents seem to be increasing in altitude. In 1998 she devoted an entire year to performing Beethoven’s complete violin sonatas, giving more than 85 performances around the world, including a live Grammy Award-winning recording of the cycle in Wiesbaden, Germany. Then she conquered 20th-century repertoire with a whirlwind transatlantic tour of its greatest works for violin, including the Sibelius, Berg and Penderecki concertos. Glamorous and renowned for her strapless elegance on stage, she’s become something of a national icon in Germany while consistently putting core repertoire at the top of its play lists. In short, she’s the virtuoso of our time.
She laughs more at herself than at me when I comment on the scale of her ambition but, given the growing magnitude of the projects she’s set herself in recent years, you have to wonder whether she isn’t now veering away from mountain climbing towards more extreme sport territory – heli-skiing or glacial hiking perhaps. During the Mozart series, she plays the sonatas, piano trios and concertos ‘on the side’ of her regular repertoire, such as the Korngold, Beethoven and Previn concertos. She’s cut her concert appearances down to around 60 this year but still it’s a draining schedule in which her recitals of the violin sonatas are spread across three consecutive evenings, taking place in Europe, Taiwan, Korea, China and the States. Does she ever feel like she’s treading on thin ice? ‘It was a clever idea to devote an entire year to the Beethoven because you get to see his dramatic development from the Haydnesque period of the Op 12 towards the very mature Op 96,’ she confides. ‘But this time I kind of overlooked the fact that there are so many different pieces. It’s a mistake to do 16 sonatas, six concerti and four trios on top of my regular repertoire, but Mozart’s birthday is an important reference point. He was this great genius whose music has never left my mind or my heart.’
Mozart has been a recurring highlight in Mutter’s schedule since she made her debut performance with the Second Concerto in Lucerne, aged nine. Four years later she made her Salzburg debut under Herbert von Karajan with the G major Concerto, recording it alongside theA major for Deutsche Grammophon in 1978. The album’s cover photograph shows a rosy-cheeked 14-year-old who appears to be trying to stand her ground while bowing (in both senses of the word) to the wisdom of a man nearly five times her age. ‘It was Karajan’s wish I play Mozart, so I played Mozart,’ she recalls. ‘If he’d said jump out of the window, I probably would have done that too.’ So what did Karajan say? ‘His main concern was with the line and unreal quality in the G major’s Adagio movement. His awareness of colours and phrasing was acute with every composer, but especially in the Mozart Adagio.’
Instinct and experience
Listening to the Adagio it’s easy to hear why Karajan was so taken with Mutter’s potential to deliver such refined phrasing, technical polish and angelic sweetness of tone. But at the age of 14, her interpretation was hatched more from instinct than experience. In recent years she’s expanded her range of colours and dynamics and developed her own voice. At 42, she now takes a more considered approach to the concertos, but ‘I don’t want to justify something I did in the past or I’m doing now,’ she says. ‘I’m not trying to break with the past or to see whether I need to play Mozart louder, faster or softer. The point is to get to grips withthe underlying meaning of these works. You have to ask yourself: why do I play him this way, where is the proof in the score, in the letters, in his life, in the style?’
So how wide does Mutter cast her net? Is there anything to be gleaned from the Boccherini concerto upon which Mozart modelled his Fourth, for example, or the Turkish elements of Lucio Silla that infiltrated the finale of the Fifth? ‘They’re not so interesting,’ she says. ‘What makes Mozart interesting is his phrasing.’ After the score, her first point of reference is Leopold Mozart’s Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. Written in the year of Mozart’s birth, it contains key insights into the Italianate style and ornamentation. ‘Often in Mozart you have semi-quavers of which two are legato and two are spiccato,’ she explains. ‘You also have to be aware of staccato playing, of distinguishing between dots and strokes. The length of every note in the score is of utmost importance.’
Not that Mutter has any aspirations towards ‘authenticity’. On the contrary, she flatly disregards the notion of period performance, proposing instead that today’s performers make the most of what they have. ‘Mozart would have employed a larger orchestra had he the opportunity and necessity to do so,’ she argues. It’s her first point in a well trodden line of arguments: modern stringing, as opposed to gut, offers more scope to explore dynamics, colour and shading; vibrato enhances tone-colour; and unless we can listen with 18th-century ears, we’ll never really know how Mozart would have sounded. According to Mutter, it’s not period players but Arthur Grumiaux who comes closest to capturing the essence of his style. ‘There has never been an outstanding number of great Mozart players but after Grumiaux, no violinist has performed Mozart as he should be played.’
She steers our conversation towards Mozart’s letters – more out of habit, it seems, than to fan the flames of a burning inquiry. ‘I can’t believe it when young performers play Mozart without reading around the subject,’ she says. ‘When you find out, for example, the K379 Sonata might have been sketched in one hour just the evening beforehe performed it, you can really smell the personality of a very exuberant and emotional performer who took the improvisando character very seriously.’ True, Mozart’s letters tantalise us with a biographical insight into his creative process, revealing how the Sonata K304 was poignantly penned in E minor after the death of his mother, for example, but do they really help us to interpret his scores? ‘No, not really,’ she concedes. ‘What you need to know is in the score.’
Improvisation en famille
The clock’s still ticking. Our press officer has also remained in the room – standard procedure for Mutter, who loathes questions about her private life. These days she lives in Munich with André Previn, her husband of three years, and her two children from her previous marriage. Her eyes smile when she talks about home life – how she likes to cook while Previn plays jazz – but their decision to team up on the Mozart trios raises questions about the dynamics of their partnership, not least because she seems so in awe of him. ‘André is such a natural, incredibly gifted Mozart player with the most beautiful sound quality and understanding of phrasing that everything just seems to fall into place,’ she asserts. But aren’t these difficult works – fiendish in parts? ‘They are very difficult,’ she admits. ‘But Mozart’s improvisando means there are always small variations on the theme and that seems to sit well with André’s improvisando style, which comes from his jazz.’ So would she consider applying her knowledge of Mozart’s improvisando to playing jazz? ‘André always tells me I should do a crossover project and I always say, “No, I will get the Mozart out of the way first.”’
Not all have given such favourable critiques of Previn’s work. In the year of their marriage, Mutter premiered his Violin Concerto to cool, even damning reviews. But Mutter says it’s the critics who are at fault, not the work. ‘I believe in music that has a strong emotional content and critics sometimes forget it can be enjoyable too.’ Unsurprisingly, she feels affectionately towards the Concerto, which celebrates Previn’s homecoming to be with her in Germany, the country he left after fleeing the Nazis with his family in 1939. Its third movement is a set of variations on one of her favourite children’s songs, donated from a German songbook that belongs to her two children. When clarifying her motives for re-recording the Mozart concertos, she recalls the epigraph from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets that’s quoted in his score: ‘We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.’ ‘For a musician, it’s an interesting process, to suddenly hear things you haven’t heard before, as though for the first time,’ she says.
After 30 years of performing on stage, Mutter’s process of rediscovering Mozart seems somewhat inevitable given the sheer quantity of repertoire that she’s already devoured. Asked whether she might perhaps have taken more time to develop during the formative stages of her career and saved the Mozart for later life, she points out that Karajan and her teacher Aïda Stucki actually held her back. ‘Karajan’s one of the reasons I played so few concerts in my early teen years and only started heavily concertising when I was 17 or 18, when I had finished my studies,’ she explains. Then she moved to Monte Carlo, bought her first Porsche, acquired her second Strad, and hung out with the likes of Plácido Domingo and Salvatore Accardo, with whom she recorded Bach’s double concertos on the EMI label. ‘People think Monte Carlo’s for the rich and famous,’ she says, half ignoring my suggestion that her car and company might support this view. ‘It was necessary for me to get away from home, have my own flat away from my parents, unplug the phone and start my own life.’
Mutter’s independence and her new-found freedom to explore music outside the Austro-German tradition were to make a considerable impact on her approach to Mozart. Just as her early interest in new music would later come full circle and inspire Karajan to look at Lutosławski, so it would shape her own approach to interpretation. From an early age, Swiss conductor Paul Sacher encouraged her to venture beyond Brahms and Beethoven into the contemporary sound worlds of Dutilleux and Lutosławski. Penderecki’s Second Violin Concerto (1998) and Dutilleux’s Sur le même accord (2002) are among the portfolio of works that have since been dedicated to her. Small wonder, then, that Mutter credits Sacher as being one of the most influential figures in her career, not only because he encouraged Europe’s leading composers to write for her, but also because he supported her decision to follow her own instincts. ‘He was one of my closest friends,’ she explains. ‘I could talk to him about anything.’
Subsequently, Mutter’s approach to contemporary repertoire has prompted her to dig more deeply into the structure of the material she plays. When it comes to premiering new works, she constructs her interpretations from scratch with little, if any, outside input and this, in turn, has strengthened her individualistic approach to core repertoire – with controversial results. Consider her up-tempo recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or her full-blooded execution of the Beethoven sonatas, for example, or her liberal use of rubato in her recent Tchaikovsky Concerto recording. Inevitably, she’s divided her critics into those who invite new spin and those who feel that she is imposing too much of herself upon the material she plays. But it’s the depth of understanding from which she draws her decisions that ultimately counts, she says. ‘In the early days I was able to make my own mistakes and learn from them without having someone on my back. Now the opinion I defend on stage is one that I have come to after living with a piece of music for 20 years.’
Looking back, she deeply regrets those instances in which she made superficial judgments about new works, such as the Berg Concerto. ‘I had an opportunity to play the Berg when I was 20 and that was a major mistake to turn it down,’ she laments. ‘But on the other hand it may have been a mistake to play it and not understand it because I just felt I wasn’t ready for it.’ At the time, it seemed ‘inaccessible and uninteresting’ and it was only during her late twenties, following a year-long break from the concert platform, that she began to appreciate the transparency of Berg’s writing. She’s since recorded it with the Chicago Symphony, yet still she harbours reservations about the Second Viennese School. ‘When I performed the Berg with Boulez he wrote down all the inconsistencies in his 12-tone technique, but Berg was wise not to strictly follow Serialism,’ she says. ‘The Schoenberg Concerto is not a piece I terribly admire and I can’t say I feel an intellectual connection with the entire works of Webern. I just click with some areas more than others.’
Conversation and confidence
Which brings us back to Mutter’s ‘mistake’ of taking on the Mozart on the side of her regular concert schedule anda nagging reminder that Boulez is writing Anthèmes III, a violin concerto that she is scheduled to premiere for Sacher’s 100th anniversary celebrations in Basle next April. The piece has been in the pipeline for some time but she laughs nervously when asked how it’s coming along. ‘It’s supposed to have been delivered in April this year and I’m still waiting for the first part of the score to arrive,’ she explains. ‘I’m in the middle of my preparation of the Mozart sonatas, so there’s no way I’ll be able to even look at it. I expect this piece to be very difficult; it’s taken me 10 years to get a piece by Boulez; now it will take 10 years to study it.’ She laughs again but her joke is founded on bitter experience. ‘New scores are unnecessarily complicated and give you a headache without contributing to the quality of the performance,’ she says. ‘Composers primarily have a responsibility towards their musicians. You can show off your car but you don’t need to do it with a piece of music.’
Mutter’s emphasis on modesty (no, she won’t tell me what car she drives, only that she’s still paying for it) strongly defines her delivery on stage. In her seemingly effortless performance of Mozart’s Third and Fourth concertos at the Barbican last March, her intonation and phrasing seemed naturally and spontaneously precise. Indeed, she seemed less to be playing than singing, or speaking, each phrase. When viola player Yuri Bashmet joined her in the programme’s second half, their performance resembled a close conversation between old friends in which everything is shared with a complete confidence in one another’s understanding. ‘We’ve played the Concertante for more than 20 years,’ she explains. ‘These days we laugh because we breathe at the same moment and we don’t even have to rehearse the cadenzas.’
Indeed, it’s Mutter’s relatively new role as an orchestral leader that has required a greater level of rehearsal. Around five years ago she made the decision to direct her own performances of the Mozart concertos on stage, first directing the Salzburg Camerata and then the Vienna Philharmonic. Though she makes no claims to be a conductor, setting her tempi with an authoritative wave of her right index finger, she has strong ideas on how the Mozart should be played. ‘My ideas initially met with some resistance from the Vienna Philharmonic but I managed to convince them,’ she says. ‘We had the same opinion about style, tempo and phrasing from the beginning otherwise it wouldn’t have made sense to try to come together.’ So why didn’t she choose to record with the Vienna Philharmonic? ‘I had been thinking about which orchestra to record with for many, many years,’ she says. ‘The London Philharmonic has a strong history of Mozart opera-playing which influenced my decision.’
Mutter likens the LPO to a Porsche – ‘vibrant and youthful’ – and their recording session to a chamber music performance in which she takes the driving seat. In order to capture spontaneity on disc, she has maintained the natural performing acoustic as far as possible. ‘Unfortunately the microphone catches every little flaw, every little geek in the horns and whistle on the string instruments,’ she says. ‘But still, I try to treat a recording as a kind of performance, which means we’ll run through the concerto, then record another run-through of single movements and then, if there’s still whistles in precisely the same place, we do patch-ups. I don’t believe in recordings that are totally removed from reality in terms of including no outside noise, no breathing, no slight discoloration of sound. They are part of theperformance and shouldn’t be totally removed.’
We’ve been in Mozart overdrive for the best part of an hour when I begin to wonder whether it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Surely there have been timesthis year when she’s yearned for a change of repertoire. ‘When the New York Philharmonic once tried to perform everything that Mozart ever wrote, they gave up halfway through,’ she recalls. ‘But I’ll fight and do my utmost in every performance.’ Besides, she’s planning performances of new repertoire with Lynn Harrell and Bashmet next year – though they haven’t decided which trios to play. In the long term, she plans to keep her ear to the ground for ‘what’s new’ by teaming up with younger conductors, while continuing her relationships with the older generation of conductors with whom she regularly works – Previn, Muti, Ozawa, Levine and Eschenbach. She can’t remember what else is on her concert schedule. In fact, she can’t see beyond the Mozart. The pressure is on. Our time is up.
Click here to subscribe to the Gramophone Archive, featuring every page of every issue of Gramophone since April 1923