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.
"She's one of the premier violinists of all time," says cellist Lynn Harrell, who has performed extensively with Mutter. "But she's always searching for something more in the music, something special. There's no sitting on her laurels."
While the retirement rumors were overblown, Mutter's life does seem to be shifting gears. Last month, she announced that her marriage to the composer and conductor Sir Andre Previn, whom she wed in 2002, had ended in divorce. She won't talk about it, but musicians in Europe say they weren't surprised; the 34-year age difference between the two was just too great.
"We were very happily married, and we will always stay good friends," she says quietly. "Let's leave it at that."
Mutter and Previn will continue to play together, but her personal life -- long the subject of European tabloids -- is becoming almost ordinary.
She lives in an art-filled house in Munich with her two children (Arabella, 16, and Richard, 12) from her first marriage to lawyer Detlef Wunderlich, who died of cancer in 1995. And while she still travels in stratospheric circles, her glamorous Monte Carlo days, she says, are "definitely over." Gone are the fast cars of her youth -- she famously bought a Porsche before she was old enough to drive -- replaced by a string of Chrysler Voyagers. (She's gone through four of them.)
"Working is a little more difficult, now," she says. "I have to be over by lunch, because the rest of the day is driving kids around."
In person, Mutter is unaffected and relaxed, with a quick sense of humor, and she dismisses the whole megastar thing as barely worth mentioning. Those sleek, elegantly sexy John Galliano gowns she performs in? "Just work uniforms," she shrugs.
She doesn't even listen to classical music, she says -- she's an Elvis fan, has Madeleine Peyroux on her iPod, and her cellphone plays Ennio Morricone. She jogs, meditates, does a little yoga, monitors her daughter's taste in rap and can't wait to see the new James Bond movie. In short: more the minivanned yuppie than Strad-packing diva.
"These days in Munich, it's not uncommon to see her out in the streets in jeans and a sweat shirt, boarding the subway with the kids," says pianist Orkis. "A decade ago that just wouldn't have happened."
But there's another side to Mutter as well, one that's brought her a steady stream of criticism. She's often seen as remote and even imperious onstage -- a sort of stern, unsmiling Valkyrie of the violin, barely noticing the mere mortals at her feet, accepting multiple curtain calls but rarely deigning to give an encore.
"I've never seen a performer who gives less onstage," says noted British critic Norman Lebrecht. "It is perfect, it is extremely well played, but she doesn't communicate with the audience. There's no eye contact. And she doesn't seem to bring any part of her personality to bear on the music. She's not so much a presence in the music, as an absence."
Mutter heatedly rejects the criticism. "I look pretty grim and gruesome when I play," she admits. "But I'm not an actor -- I'm a musician! I've never seen my role as having to 'act' something, on an out-of-music level. I'm communicating through the music, and my soul is out there, naked."
Her voice rises: "I'm not in the mood to smile while I'm playing; I'm there to transmit the music!"
To many, that's what makes her great.
"She hasn't based her career on the razzle-dazzle of the virtuoso," Harrell says. "She plays the violin as well as anyone has -- ever -- but she isn't out there to play faster or more brilliantly. She's out there to bring the listener closer to the intrinsic value of the music."
And what is the value of music? Mutter pauses for a moment, thinking.
"Music is a microcosm of life -- that's what Lambert and I try to bring forward in the Mozart sonatas," she says. "Everything is there -- everything. Like the Sonata in E Minor," she says, referring to the piece she played earlier that morning. "He wrote it around the time of the death of his mother, and he also had to leave his first love. It's very subtle and totally heartbreaking. When we're done, we have to go offstage and take deep breaths."
She smiles, as if hearing the music in her mind. "Because, you see," she says with quiet finality, "it's directly connected to the heart."