Young musicians, when they perform, are going head to head with the echoes of the greats who have left traces in memory, recording, the conventional wisdom. Top stars — such as the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, whom the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) presented at Strathmore on Tuesday night — are going up against themselves.
And don’t tell me it’s not a competition. Of course, the point is to enjoy gorgeous music. But the first question anyone asks about a concert is, How was it? Meaning, what was distinctive? How did it stand up to expectations?
Mutter and her accompanist, Washington’s own Lambert Orkis, have been playing together for 25 years, have won a Grammy and have established themselves as classical music’s elite. So, of course, the answer to the question “How was it?” is that it was great. They played music that has particular meaning for them — opening with Mozart’s K. 379 Sonata in G (they spent all of 2006 playing Mozart’s sonatas) and concluding, after enthusiastic acclaim from a smallish audience, with no fewer than three encores: Ravel’s “Piece en Forme de Fabanera,” Brahms’s second Hungarian Dance, and the Meditation from Massenet’s “Thais.” Mutter is a beautiful player, musically and visually: her tone sings, her line is smooth and clear. And Orkis matches her: musically debonair, elegant, fleet-fingered.
If I sound a little reserved, so, too, I thought, did they. They’re on tour with this program for a couple of weeks, and on the first half I wondered if they were having an off night. “Off,” at this level, is major-league play for most mortals. Shouldn’t we just glory in the sound of this emphatic Mozart, which Mutter brought far from the kind of porcelain perfection often associated with this music? She played it with an all-out quality that led her to a kind of roughness on some notes, even if it’s elegant roughness, as Dame Maggie Smith might articulate a crude comment. But both this and the Schubert Fantasy in C seemed a touch cerebral, despite all the passion of the music: ever so slightly out of body, though there was no faulting the violin’s perfect singing line in the third movement variations, or Orkis’s ever elegant pianism
In the second half of the program, however, both players came into their own. Lutoslawski’s “Partita” is a big and powerful work that Mutter has taken as her own for many years; she first played it in Washington with Orkis in 1990, and she premiered the orchestral version that the composer had originally had in line when he wrote it. Its fullness gives both players orchestral scope, and its sometimes acerbic lines took melodic flight in a soaring performance that was still less memorable for its climaxes than for its small beauties, like the moment in the second movement when Mutter’s violin swooned gently and Orkis reached up to punctuate it with a little bunch of notes, like glass grapes.
Saint-Saens’s first Sonata in D Minor could be construed as a lighter piece, but Mutter doesn’t really do “light”: It got an exhilarating performance, concluding with some dextrous fiddling that, if it couldn’t bring a smile to Mutter’s lips, brought one to mine.