Anne-Sophie Mutter is a violinist of broad horizons. She will talk about the 20th-century painters who’ve influenced her, the unusual pedagogues, the intellectual debates over composers. Just for a moment, however, she wants to talk about a book that was important to her when she was growing up in the Black Forest. It’s a simple fairy tale, but the Black Forest is a fairy-tale sort of place, particularly where Mutter lived, right in the crook of south-west Germany, close to the French and Swiss borders.
This book was about a small boy, so small that his father was rather disappointed in him. But he had a talent for the fiddle. ‘When he played backwards,’ Mutter remembers, ‘things would become small, and when he played forwards, things would grow.’
The story continues. A greedy king sees how he can take advantage of the boy with the enchanted violin. ‘He takes the boy and tells him to play for his army, which will then be bigger than anybody else’s – and he’ll win the war. But the boy plays backwards. The bad king shrinks to the size of a grain of rice and disappears somewhere into the floor. And that was the end of the story.’ Mutter says that as a little girl she would read the story over and over again. ‘I was fascinated by the possibilities. That a violin could be magical. And it is.’
It is one clue behind Mutter’s unexpected new project, ‘Across the Stars’, a collaboration with the king of film music John Williams (Oscars: five; Grammys: 24; tear-jerking interludes: too many to count).
In this space- and time-traversing album, the Mutter Strad casts Hogwarts-branded spells (‘Hedwig’s Theme’ from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), chases Yoda and the Skywalker siblings across a galaxy far, far away (Star Wars and sequels), depicts the eponymous, blood-sucking patrician in John Badham’s 1979 Dracula (‘Night Journeys’), and rattles along after Tintin and his dastardly adversaries (‘The Duel’ from The Adventures of Tintin, 2011).
‘He really knows how to orchestrate’: Mutter is in awe of Williams the composer (photo: DG)
It’s only a shame, says Mutter, that some of Williams’s absolute belters didn’t make the list. So does she believe a violin can fly? ‘Yes, I would have loved to play the theme from Superman! And Indiana Jones – are you kidding? War Horse, too – horrible title for a film, wonderful music. But that is not for the violin. That was John’s decision. Also Jaws!’ The last seems like a bizarre proposition. And in the end it was. ‘The violin is too high in the register. There is a limit.’
Mutter had worked with Williams before, on the 2017 piece Markings for violin, harp and strings. She wanted to coax him into writing a full-blown concerto, but the latest collaboration instead turned into this film music project. Williams is 87 years old, but Mutter, 56, still lives in hope. ‘I think, without saying too much, that he is not yet finished with the idea of writing a concerto for me.’
Yet she does not believe that ‘Across the Stars’ represents a compromise or ‘second best’. Speaking in the green room of the Bayerischer Rundfunk television and radio studios in her home city of Munich (she has just done a live interview on regional TV), she says that the project that emerged had been ‘maybe more out of reach’ than the concerto idea, ‘because John definitely didn’t expect me to be interested in playing some of his most iconic film themes, and I didn’t dare to ask. But then there’s André – or then there was André …’
She refers, of course, to André Previn, who died in February this year. Mutter and Previn were married from 2002 to 2006, and remained close friends and colleagues after their divorce. And Previn and Williams’s relationship went back decades. ‘They were best pals from when they met at the age of around 18 or 19 and started out in Hollywood,’ Mutter explains. ‘Movingly enough, the studio in which we recorded this new album was where André’s career in film also started, some 60 years ago, and so in a way it all came to a close. For those five days in which we were recording in Los Angeles, André’s spirit was definitely in the air.’ She is talking about what is now the Sony studio lot in Culver City, the same room where the music for The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain was recorded. Those films were produced by MGM, where Previn worked for 16 years – his first job out of high school.
Previn was much more than just a guiding light for Mutter and Williams. He brought them together and pointed the composer towards some of the less iconic film scores that he thought could work well in violin-led arrangements, among them the Dracula piece and ‘Nice To Be Around’ from the ’70s romantic drama Cinderella Liberty, a theme originally played by the virtuoso harmonica player Toots Thielemans. Previn insisted Williams adapt it. And he told Williams to stretch Mutter as much as he could, resulting in a suitably fiendish expansion of ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ from Harry Potter, a six-minute workout which Mutter compares to Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy. ‘Apparently he called John up and said, “It has to be more virtuosic!” So John piled up more difficulties, more double-stops. It was like a joint venture between two composers, and then there was me, getting the scores and sweating.’
Does Mutter think that Previn suffered in some quarters – especially the rarefied symphonic world – for working across film, jazz and classical music, and treating all three with equal importance? ‘I think that, musically speaking, he did what he felt he needed to do. He was a complete musician, and that is what I want to be too. I don’t see any division between a greatly crafted score for a film, which can stand perfectly fine by itself without the pictures or storyline, or another piece of music which has no programme. Strauss’s Don Quixote is music that might have a storyline, but even if you don’t know the story, and the two main characters of the viola and cello, it’s great music and you can enjoy it for what it is.’ It was Previn, she asserts, who taught her which side she wanted to be on when it came to this question: ‘Are you a specialist and soloist purely, or are you instead a musician who wants to see the entire cosmos rather than just a small bit of it?’
Working directly with Williams has been an eye-opener for Mutter. Owing to an unexpected pause on shooting the latest Star Wars film, the composer ‘properly’ rewrote all the themes recorded on the album. The two worked in the studio to go over the fresh arrangements and orchestration. ‘And what he knows about music, about violin playing, about bowings, phrasing … I was really taken aback. Because I don’t know any non-violinist who is that insightful.’ She chalks this up to Williams’s on-the-job training as a composer, which began by writing music for television shows more or less on demand, in a variety of different styles. ‘He’s one of the last film composers – if not the last – who uses a huge orchestra and really knows how to orchestrate, and is properly doing that himself, and not through a computer or other people; unlike others who apparently play a tune on the piano with one finger and then get the credit.’
Mutter appreciates craft. To prepare for ‘Across the Stars’ she did not spend days on end binge-watching the films from which these themes originate – tempting as it surely might have been to spend days on the sofa and call it homework; instead, she enjoyed the act of ‘dressing up’, of making her violin ‘act’ like the instruments originally spotlit by Williams. In Star Wars, for example, playing the classic ‘Princess Leia’s Theme’ meant ‘finding the right horn-like timbre, as if suspended in the air – finding that timeless heroic scope that the horn just has. It’s nothing to do with playing loudly, just finding a timbre that the violin doesn’t normally have.’
Williams conducts Mutter and the Los Angeles Recording Arts Orchestra during sessions in a Culver City studio where the late André Previn’s ‘spirit was definitely in the air’ (photo: DG)
So much about Mutter’s career appears to be constant that it can sometimes be mistaken for routine, albeit routine at the highest possible level. She is in her fifth decade of recording for DG (she started in 1978, at the age of 14, with Herbert von Karajan, the Berlin Philharmonic and Mozart’s Third and Fifth Violin Concertos). This master technician’s calling card is a big, vibrant sound – well, that and, in live performances, her trademark strapless dresses in block colour (they are all designed by British couturier Nicholas Oakwell, since you ask).
Perhaps there is something timeless about the sum effect, but she is not standing still. This new album is surely proof of that. So, too, is the roster of composers she’s just been working with. ‘So there was Penderecki’s big 85th birthday, and a big celebration for him, the great composer in my life, who’s given me four amazing pieces,’ she says, quietly triumphant. ‘And at the same time there was John, who I was working with on this, totally different, project, and at the same time Jörg Widmann had finished a string quartet, and Unsuk Chin had finished a piece for two solo fiddles, and I played the world premiere of Sebastian Currier’s fabulous Ghost Trio for piano trio.’
Can she put her finger on what those composers might have common? She can try. ‘A certain sense of architecture and … I don’t know if sensuality is the right word. Beauty is also not the right word … Some understanding that music needs to have a narrative. Understanding what timbres certain instruments can provide for a musical gesture.’ We circle back to the beauty/sensuality problem. ‘Some kind of emotion, whatever you want to call it – I need to find it there. But that’s very subjective, obviously. I’m a great Thomas Adès fan, and I’m really jealous about his first violin concerto. I don’t know why it wasn’t written for me [it was composed for British violinist Anthony Marwood] – it would have been perfect for me!’ She could still play it, surely? ‘No, I want my own.’ Is that forthcoming? It sounds like it will eventually happen, whether Adès wants it to or not. ‘He has to work at it, but we have discussed it, and it looks promising.’
One can understand what Mutter would see in the ferociously detailed, technically exhausting but also romantically driven music of Adès. Less so with Boulez, whom she pursued for a concerto for many years, in the end unsuccessfully. Being conducted by him drove her admiration, she says. ‘It was so fascinating to work with him in rehearsals, which was why I wanted the challenge. I knew I would have probably needed 20 years to study it, but I was willing to do it – if I’d have been able to do it. I don’t know – maybe it’s better I never found out.’
Mutter’s appetite for new music is tempered by regret for newer listening habits. Streaming or downloading music without copyright approval is one bugbear. ‘I grew up very aware with my composer friends of what it means to create something, and to have that protected. So I’m a little nervous about the fact that, in huge parts of the world, respect for that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the downside of streaming things from YouTube and other channels which aren’t supposed to be free.’
More broadly, Mutter is concerned about the implications of an ‘on-demand’ culture of listening, of people dipping into music that isn’t fairly representing the efforts of the players, particularly if they’re listening to highly compressed sound files while on the go. ‘We are losing the ability of very precise and careful listening,’ she says. ‘It’s not good for music. I’m really concerned about the fact that so much subtlety of the moment, of the musical gesture, of the emotion and greatness of a composition, is just bypassing us because we don’t have the time to be here. It’s why I still love the LP. You sit, you celebrate it, you take the time, and, as much as the CD is great and streaming is fabulous, whether it’s on your phone, in your car or in the bathroom, it’s always in the second row of your attention. You consume it while you do something else.’
What would her sometime mentor Karajan have thought of a world where his minutely calibrated recordings could be disseminated so casually? ‘Well, he would also have loved the fact that music could be available anytime, anywhere. But it’s like Goethe’s Der Zauberlehrling [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice] – you ask for the ghosts and then they take over. We asked the ghosts to have music anywhere under any circumstances, and now we have the copyright problem. And we have the problem of a record industry that is firing up one musician after the other, one product after another, because the market wants new faces, but in classical music things need to evolve slowly, and they need to evolve over a longer period. A musician needs the chance to grow – none of us became who we are overnight.’
This might sound curmudgeonly, were it not for the fact that through her own foundation, set up 21 years ago, Mutter invests time and, sometimes, money in mentoring younger artists, to try to develop their talents in the right direction. One example is the Slovak double bass player Roman Patkaló. ‘What could I do with him? I asked a lot of composers to write for him, because it was clear he was an amazing soloist. Penderecki wrote for him, Wolfgang Rihm wrote for him. My foundation paid for that, because he needed repertoire so that he could shine.’
Against that success story, however, she admits that the organisation ‘survives or falls with the young musicians I find. You can give all the help you want, but at the end of the day, people’s lives are unpredictable, and sometimes I just don’t understand how some musicians have careers and others, who I find superior or more interesting, go nowhere.’ When I ask who in the younger generations she is currently inspired by, she mentions the 14-year-old British prodigy Alma Deutscher, a violinist and composer who’s had the misfortune to be christened ‘Little Miss Mozart’ by some in the media. ‘I have brought together her and Jörg Widmann,’ Mutter says. ‘She’s not officially my scholar, but I like to keep track of what she’s doing. She is gifted and intelligent enough to grow up into someone who genuinely has her own musical voice. She is a huge talent, and so there are a few of us musicians hovering over her and hoping that everything goes well for her.’
What else has Mutter got on her plate? Performing extracts from ‘Across the Stars’ will be another new experience, because she’ll take them to big open-air venues unfamiliar to her. ‘I’ll be sharing music with film fans, and, you know, also showing them how utterly fascinating the violin is. But I’m not intending to persuade anyone to come and listen to Bach solos.’ At the other extreme of live performance, she has loved giving recitals in music clubs (her Yellow Lounge album is a record of this). ‘It’s a small room where the audience is close to you. They can see you sweat and see what hard work it is to perform. It’s where you can talk to the audience, where it’s OK to have fun. It’s kind of, “Wow!”’
In 2020 there will be Beethoven, naturally, for it’s an anniversary year. In 1998, Mutter undertook a daunting tour of the entire Beethoven sonata cycle, and recorded it live. ‘But next year will be tremendous because I finally have the chance to get close to late Beethoven. It’s a new journey, and it’s a good moment in my life to do that – because in 2021 I will take a year off and totally restructure my life.’
Mutter has sprung a cliffhanger answer on me and I’m not entirely sure even she knows what she means by it. After this gap year, what will characterise the rebooted Mutter? ‘Performing less. Having more study time. I need to refocus – on how I can be a more useful member of human society.’ Perhaps she is thinking back to that boy’s magic violin, and what good things she can make bigger if she just plays it in the right direction.
‘Across the Stars’ on DG is out now
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue of the world's leading classical music magazine – subscribe today!