By Laurence Vittes
Hommage à Penderecki
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Lambert Orkis, piano; Roman Patkoló, double bass;
London Symphony Orchestra, Krzysztof Penderecki, cond.
Ahead of the composer’s 85th birthday this fall, Deutsche Grammophon is releasing Hommage à Penderecki, celebrating the composer’s longtime collaboration with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. The double album brings together Mutter’s recordings of the La Follia variations for solo violin, the Duo concertante for violin and double bass (with Roman Patkoló), Metamorphosen (the composer’s Violin Concerto No. 2), and the Violin Sonata No. 2 (dedicated to Mutter).
You know a recording is authoritative when the composer writes: “I doubt if you really understand your own music. You write and write. Only when you hear the music—hear it as Anne-Sophie plays it—do you really understand it.”
The release is just one of a series of events for Mutter during the 2018–19 season. She will be introducing John Williams’ Markings to European audiences; playing a benefit recital at the Berlin Philharmonie with Daniel Barenboim celebrating 100 years of the Hans Adler agency; and, together with the Kammerorchester Wien-Berlin, will tour 21 cities in six countries across Europe. It has also been announced that she will perform at Tanglewood this summer, performing music by Andre Previn and John Williams in separate concerts.
“You are there to communicate with your instrument, and that is your main purpose in life.”
As a tireless champion of new music, Mutter is happy to report that Jörg Widmann is writing a quartet for her, that Unsuk Chin has just finished an “extremely difficult” solo piece, and that she is working on Sebastian Currier’s piano trio for premiere next March at Carnegie Hall with Lambert Orkis and Daniel Müller-Schott.
I caught up with Mutter by phone just before she was scheduled to leave for a dream vacation to Peru with Lambert Orkis, celebrating their 30 years onstage together.
What have you learned over the years about Penderecki?
How much he believes in and how much he needs form. “Without the form,” he says, “I cannot write. I am not just writing random themes and mixing them together; I need the architecture for form—and then a labyrinth in which to get lost.” He actually has a labyrinth on his huge property in Poland and you can see what he’s aiming at. In the Sonata there are definitely places like the “Notturno” movement where the music doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, where he seems to be searching his way back to the theme or perhaps toward a totally new idea. These labyrinth moments in his music are like floating islands, which as a player you can decide whether to storm through or hold the tempo back in order to contemplate and show the labyrinth in all its details. These were the subjects that Lambert and I wrestled with in the Sonata and I hope we came up with a recording that is rather clear and helpful to the piece: Even when you listen to it for the first time, I hope you will get a sense of
the whereabouts of the musical ideas.
How hard was it to put the Sonata together?
I can only tell you that Lambert and I have spent literally years of restudying a piece that we premiered in 2000. It’s incredibly complex—there are always three if not four musical ideas running around at the very same time—so you have to make conscious decisions about which one or two of them you want to put at the forefront. Once you feel confident in knowing precisely when and where the other is at any moment you can do what the composer asks, to play in a way that sounds like a huge improvisando with multiple cadenzas where things seem to be afloat, shifting in tempo and musical gestures, except that both of us know exactly where we are. It’s what makes the piece so uniquely difficult and we had to dedicate time to it like no other piece ever.
Looking back at Metamorphosen?
The piece has never totally been out of my repertoire and has been one of the key contemporary pieces in my life. And because it was written during an extremely painful, difficult time in my life it has become a personal Metamorphosen—a guiding light to understanding the metamorphosis of our lives that is happening as we speak, and accepting that we are on the way to a final metamorphosis with every moment we live. Recognizing this as a young widow as well as a musician very much changed my perception of life.
It’s a masterpiece. I love how it starts with a low A, like a ringing bell of remembrance introducing what is going to happen; the tension between the A and D, which gives the piece its drama, and ending up on the high E, is totally spectacular. After the sardonic scherzo in the middle, the huge cadenza with the quartet at the end reminds me of the Berg Violin Concerto where the violin kind of escapes the mortal body and becomes immortal somewhere up there, out there. It’s quite a spiritual piece, and powerful. Krzysztof’s ability to be monumental is something I treasure very highly in his music overall and particularly in Metamorphosen. It is probably the most personal piece of music I take onstage.
What was it like working with Penderecki?
Like with all new pieces once I have the score, in most cases I’m rather successful in getting under the music’s skin, no matter what, and conquering the technical challenges. Of course, there are usually smaller bits and blurbs which have to be rewritten. Actually there was a place in Krzysztof’s La Follia where rewriting was necessary because I was stuck—not because I’m a bad violinist but because it was written technically at an impossible speed. So Krzysztof had to rewrite it and we enjoyed that discussion a lot because he had been a formidable violinist himself in his young years and I think really enjoyed giving up the headaches he had caused very much. On the other hand, he was happy that he had actually pushed me to the edge.
You have a knack for articulating musical events. How important is this to a young musician?
Talking to an audience or to a journalist has become a natural part of a musician’s life. But young musicians today need to be careful about social media; it can take away so much time from their studying. I love telling the younger generations: Never forget you are a musician and a humble servant of the composer first and not a salesperson. If there’s time to communicate verbally, fine; if not, you are there to communicate with your instrument, and that is your main purpose in life.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Strings magazine.