Anne-Sophie Mutter, Brilliant at Baroque

Mutter still shows great virtuosity and elegance after more than 30 years of performances.
Mutter still shows great virtuosity and elegance after more than 30 years of performances. (By Anja Frers)
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By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 13, 2008

Thank goodness Anne-Sophie Mutter didn't mean it when she said she would retire when she turned 45. That would have been last June -- and the musical world, including the sellout crowd at the Washington Performing Arts Society's season opener at the Kennedy Center, would have missed a remarkable concert Saturday night.

Just how much Mutter still has to offer was amply shown in a program of Bach and Tartini, accompanied by the excellent musicians of Camerata Salzburg. At the start of Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1, Mutter presented herself as first among equals, with no need to dominate through sheer virtuosity. The Andante, sweet but not swooning, was especially revelatory, thanks to Mutter's minimal vibrato and astonishing dynamic range -- her pianissimos so evanescent as to be almost, but not quite, inaudible. Then the finale, taken very quickly, swept through like a breath of fresh air.

For Bach's Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, Mutter shared the spotlight with Vilde Frang, 21, whose thinner tone and more expressive body language nicely complemented Mutter's richer, fuller sound and less evocative stage presence. The brisk first movement led to a Largo featuring beautifully intertwined solo lines and especially subtle orchestral accompaniment, and a bright and good-humored finale.

There was more Bach after intermission: the Violin Concerto No. 2, with Mutter again making her instrument whisper in soft sections in a performance devoid of fussiness. The first movement went slightly off-tempo a couple of times -- Camerata Salzburg was essentially on its own, with Mutter's conducting limited to an occasional gesture or head motion. But the Adagio was an evocation of beauty, and the finale was filled with verve and spirit.

And then came a very different baroque work: Giuseppe Tartini's famous "Devil's Trill" sonata. Mutter's elegance of deportment matched the musical style of the opening Larghetto Affetuoso, but the tremendous virtuosity underpinning her always-cool stage presence emerged as the music became far less sedate, with double stops aplenty and fanfare-like runs. This was Riccardo Zandonai's arrangement of the Tartini for violin and string ensemble, and the orchestra provided unobtrusive but solid grounding. Mutter also incorporated Fritz Kreisler's unidiomatic but undeniably spectacular cadenza -- a showpiece that overbalances the sonata but that Mutter played with such heart-stopping brilliance that structural issues scarcely mattered. For once, the marketing matched the music: This concert was the start of WPAS's "Stars Series," and it was truly stellar.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company