Violinist Mutter, Revving Her Motor

Anne-Sophie Mutter has spent 18 months on a vast project of Mozart recordings, but not to the exclusion of contemporary music, which she also champions.
Anne-Sophie Mutter has spent 18 months on a vast project of Mozart recordings, but not to the exclusion of contemporary music, which she also champions. (By Tina Tahir -- Shotview Photographers For Deutsche Grammophon)
By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 19, 2006

Anne-Sophie Mutter is barefoot in the studio, Stradivarius tucked firmly under her chin, listening. At the piano, accompanist Lambert Orkis begins to trace a delicate theme -- the Menuetto from Mozart's Sonata in E Minor, K. 304 -- and after a moment Mutter raises her bow and starts to play.

The effect is electrifying: The theme, first gentle, deepens into tenderness, then darkens in anguish. The emotions shift like quicksilver; grief stabs through, wavers, then gives way to a landscape of limitless hope. It's a profound and moving performance, and through it all Mutter is completely absorbed, rocking slightly back and forth as she probes deeper and deeper into the music -- playing, as a British critic recently wrote, like "a goddess stepped down from Mount Olympus."

"Well -- better than being a devil!" Mutter says with a laugh, relaxing back at her hotel a few hours after the recording session at National Public Radio has ended.

At 43 she has spent most of her life as one of the world's most celebrated violinists, and she takes all the "goddess" stuff completely in stride. Mutter is still the drop-dead beauty she was when, as a teenage prodigy, she stormed the concert halls of Europe. The Breck Girl hair still shines, the lips are as bee-stung as ever, and those gravity-defying gowns still rock the classical world. But Mutter has evolved from mere goddess into something much more interesting -- one of the hardest-working musicians on the planet.

And her approach to the Mozart sonata -- which she's scheduled to perform tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center -- is a prime example. She has spent much of the past 18 months immersed in Mozart's world, studying the composer's letters, analyzing his scores in minute detail, even reading his father's treatise on the violin -- anything she can do to get completely inside the music. It's an impossible task, she admits. "Mozart," she says, "is an endless story."

Vast as it is, though, her "Mozart Project" -- with its recordings of the concertos, the piano trios and 16 of the sonatas, as well as a grueling series of concerts with Orkis that has taken her from Tokyo to Moscow -- is only part of Mutter's life as a musician.

She's become a leading proponent of contemporary music -- she'll be premiering ferociously complex new concertos by Sofia Gubaidulina and Andre Previn next year -- and she and Orkis are preparing their next in-depth project, on Johannes Brahms.

Then there's her teaching at London's Royal Academy of Music, a long string of benefit concerts, her Circle of Friends Foundation (which helps talented young string players) and her relentless badgering of the Bavarian government to implement her ideas on early music education.

"That's what she's like," says cellist Daniel Muller-Schott, who recently recorded the Mozart piano trios with Mutter. "She does everything at super speed."

So when Mutter seemed to announce on French television last month that she would be retiring on her 45th birthday -- causing great tearing of hair and rending of Gucci among her fans -- it threw the classical world into a minor panic. Was the most glamorous woman in classical music really hanging up her bow?

"No!" she says, running a hand through her hair in exasperation. "No no no no! That statement was completely misinterpreted. I've always said that I would not go on forever, because I didn't want to fall into the trap of just repeating myself. When I think I cannot bring anything new, anything important, anything different to music, I will stop. But this is not related to age!"

And that's quintessential Mutter, her colleagues say. Discovered at 13 by famed conductor Herbert von Karajan, she rocketed to superstardom and hasn't stopped pushing herself since.

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