Mutter, Taking Mozart Seriously

Anne-Sophie Mutter played five compositions with pianist Lambert Orkis.
Anne-Sophie Mutter played five compositions with pianist Lambert Orkis. (By Lillian Birnbaum)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter has thrown herself into the music of Mozart this season, recording all of the concertos, most of the sonatas and a number of the larger chamber works. She has also been taking Mozart on tour, with her longtime musical partner (and pianist of the National Symphony Orchestra) Lambert Orkis. On Monday, under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society, the two came to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for a program of duets.

I use the term "duet" advisedly, for these are works that demand full commitment from both players. It is not enough for the violinist to be "assisted and admired" by her collaborator (as the vaudevillian Nora Bayes used to insist that her husband, Jack Norworth, be billed); the two musicians have equally important parts to play.

It was an ambitious program: five substantial works from Mozart's maturity, ranging from the haunting Sonata in E Minor, K. 304 (the only one of the composer's more than 35 compositions in this genre written in a minor key, yet still splashed with melancholy sunshine) through the exuberant Sonata in E-flat, K. 481, with its almost Bachian contrapuntal play. (For the record, the other pieces were the Sonata in F, K. 376, the Sonata in G, K. 379, and the Sonata in B-flat, K. 454.)

Mutter's great mentor was Herbert von Karajan, and she has many qualities in common with the late Austrian conductor. There are some who find both musicians cold technicians -- uninterestingly perfect and perfectly uninteresting -- and both have been accused of playing down emotional intensity for tonal beauty.

Unfair charges in both cases, or so it seems to me. Still, tonal beauty there certainly was, and in abundance. If anything, the playing sounded even sweeter -- strong, creamy, absolutely centered -- from an upper balcony, where I spent part of the concert's second half, than it did from a few rows back from the stage. Mutter is at her best in Mozart's slow movements, which she spins out as long, lush and prayerful meditations that might go on forever. The command and authority she brings to proclamatory opening movements is also admirable -- from first note to last, there is never any doubt that we are in the presence of a master violinist.

My main reservation about Mutter's playing concerns her near-total lack of silliness. Wit she has, of a rather patrician order, but the hearty, folkish and not always immaculately tailored humor of Mozart (and Beethoven, too, for that matter) seems alien to her, and one has the sense that she is doing her best to smooth away perceived vulgarity.

There have been other great musicians with the same serious habits -- one thinks immediately of the pianists Claudio Arrau and Wilhelm Backhaus -- but, in each case, an excess of nobility can begin to seem, well, a little excessive. No such complaints about Orkis, who strikes me as a near-perfect ensemble pianist -- focused, responsive, knowing when to hold back and when to take the lead, always precisely there. I especially liked the near-orchestral grandeur he brought to the beginning of the Sonata in G, which began to sound like a piano reduction of the greatest concerto Beethoven never wrote.

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