By Laurence Vittes | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter came out of the pandemic full steam. At press time, she was scheduled to perform a special recital program with Lambert Orkis at the Salzburg Festival in August, headline September galas with the Pittsburgh and Dallas symphonies, prepare the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Gran Cadenza with her ensemble Mutter’s Virtuosi for a 16-city tour including Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, and end the year with a benefit concert for the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn.
Before the hiatus, Mutter and quartet mates Ye-Eun Choi, Vladimir Babeshko, and Daniel Müller-Schott had premiered Jörg Widman’s Study on Beethoven in Tokyo in early 2020, and taken it on tour alongside Haydn and Beethoven. In June, she played with Martha Argerich for the first time ever, and performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Paris with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin. In July she gave the world premiere of John Williams’ Violin Concerto No. 2 at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony conducted by the composer.
During her months of COVID-enforced down time, Mutter led public discussions with politicians about the situation faced by musicians in Germany and in Europe. In a conversation a few weeks before the Salzburg Festival, I ask Mutter about Widmann’s new quartet and her whirlwind post-COVID season.
Widmann’s quartet was intended, the composer writes, “as the beginning of a new cycle devoted to an intense study of Beethoven’s unique and consummate artistry of quartet composition.” What does that mean to you?
It deals with the eruptive black and white, cold and hot aspects of Beethoven’s music, furious and tender, with great architecture. It’s one 35-minute movement of high intensity, rhythmically difficult music. At first, we were under the impression we needed a conductor. But we had long, eye-opening rehearsals in January 2020, when we met with Jörg. He has a way of talking about music that is highly emotional. He has a genius for connecting a cerebral construction with something you could call a beautiful melody, and he has an extraordinary way with color, as if he were orchestrating the quartet.
What was it like playing with Martha Argerich for the first time?
Playing the Franck Sonata with Martha was a life-changing experience: the way she phrases, the spontaneity of her playing, and her total involvement with music. It’s a miracle making music with her.
I understand you had to pull some strings to make the John Williams premiere happen.
It was almost impossible to get a travel permit, so I and others spoke to President Biden and eventually it came through. Working with John again after all the coronavirus months on drafts, changes, and improvements—his Violin Concerto became my lifeline. What a thrill when a new score comes. He took my love for jazz as an inspiration and wrote with the greatest skill and dialogue. It was special to me because I grew up in the Black Forest with classical music, and jazz, too, and then I married one of the great jazz musicians of our time [second husband André Previn].
What does it feel like going back to the Salzburg Festival?
When I drive through the tunnel to the back entrance to the Festspielhaus, where Karajan’s Porsche used to stand, even today I feel a heightened sense of awe—and a little bit of panic. The festival really set an example last August by opening even if there were only 90 concerts and with audiences at 50 percent and masked. It was truly a sign of passion and dedication to the arts—hats off to the love and commitment they have shown. I wish we could all could do it.
Your most special Salzburg Festival memories?
Falling in love in Salzburg, playing Schubert’s “Trout” Quintetwith Daniil Trifonov, the last performances with Karajan.
How did you decide on the program for Salzburg: Mozart’s Sonata in E minor, K. 304, Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, and the Franck Sonata?
Normally my Salzburg programs have been serious, very long, and rather adventuresome but sometimes you just want to play your favorite pieces without anything totally adventurous, contemporary, or crazy. And this is pretty much what the program is about.
Why Mozart in E minor?
It’s maybe our favorite Mozart sonata, which has much to do with my personal history. [Orkis and] I played it on the recital after my husband Detlef Wunderlich, the father of my two children, died in August 1995, and which DG recorded. We called it the Berlin Recital. I had explained to my children that their father was now a butterfly, because his body was weak and he needed to change his appearance. Now he would be free and just as beautiful as a butterfly, and my children could live with that explanation. So the butterfly became something very significant in our lives.
And then, when Lambert and I came onto the Berlin Philharmonic stage to start the second half of the program after the Mozart, there was a butterfly sitting next to the piano. Lambert and I looked at each other, each wanting to cry. So every time we play the Mozart we play it different than everybody else, maybe because of our story, maybe because Mozart wrote it after the death of his mother. As his only Violin Sonata in a minor key, it does stand out. And it requires a certain amount of pain and reflection, and maybe also maturity.
And you will end with the Franck?
It’s a wonderful concerto for piano and violin, so hyper-Romantic. It has a canvas full of colors for the violin, and it requires a great pianist. So there you go. We’ll do our utmost to set the house on fire.