Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin virtuoso, sizzles on Brahms

SIZZLING: Anne-Sophie Mutter with pianist Lambert Orkis.
SIZZLING: Anne-Sophie Mutter with pianist Lambert Orkis. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
By Robert Battey
Monday, November 15, 2010

Violin goddess Anne-Sophie Mutter is an omnivore: She plays anything and everything, with scalding beauty, from Vivaldi to the most thorny recent works. But she is no generalist: When she turns her attention to a particular composer, he is intently weighed, analyzed and then packaged to precise specifications. Mutter's recorded surveys of the complete violin repertoire of Beethoven, Mozart and Mendelssohn are high-gloss productions, exuding scholarship, virtuosity and glamour.

At the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon, with her long-time recital partner, Washington's own Lambert Orkis, Mutter presented the three Brahms sonatas, her latest project. Still pulchritudinous and dazzling in her mid-40s, Mutter is in her artistic prime. She is in the midst of a 13-concert residency with the New York Philharmonic, on top of her worldwide touring and recording, and the unusual program was chosen to promote her new audio and video release of the same repertoire.

For those who may have secretly wished for some lighter fare, she offered encores by Gershwin and her ex-husband André Previn, as well as a boisterous Brahms Hungarian Dance. It is a little odd that, with all her Teutonic thoroughness, she omitted the Brahms "Sonatensatz" scherzo from both her recital and recording. The project has to get a grade of "incomplete," splendidly executed as it was.

Mutter's command of the instrument, particularly her range of color, is second to none. The precision of her bow arm allows for perfect attacks and releases on double-stops, even at the level of a whisper. And when she lets her turbo-charged sound roar fully out, you feel it almost physically. While it cannot be said that her intonation is quite as flawless as Hilary Hahn's, her regal playing is still a thing of wonder.

Interpretively, though, there is certainly room to cavil. As a world-class artist for decades now, Mutter has become a "brand" that she polishes and protects. Nothing is left to chance in her performances. She and Orkis work details out during intensive rehearsals, every pause and rubato calculated out to its fifth decimal place.

This lack of spontaneity is balanced, if that is the right word, by the conceit that she has discerned any number of tempo changes that the composer wanted in the music but failed to notate. Transitions and codas are particularly susceptible to this push-pull treatment, and to these ears it distorts the music. Worse, she sometimes willfully ignores clear instructions the composer did write.

Orkis is a deeply sensitive artist, as Washington audiences well know. But some of Mutter's tempos were so fast that he could do little more than hang on. The rhythmic counterpoint in the finale of the D Minor Sonata simply whizzed by, without making any of the jazzy points in the music. The gentle raindrop accompaniment in the G Major Sonata's finale was a downpour, without any variety in articulation. And in the same work, the magical unity provided by the three-note rhythmic motto in each movement was lost; Mutter sometimes bowed it so smoothly you couldn't hear the rhythm at all.

Mutter didn't get where she is today by following the crowd. Her "brand" encompasses sizzling virtuosity, aggressive (if arbitrary) interpretive decisions, and haute couture glamour. This package, all by itself, makes for memorable concerts no matter the repertoire. But in works of the great masters, there are verities and benchmarks that do not always lend themselves successfully to this treatment. Sometimes less can be more.

Battey is a freelance writer.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company