By Inge Kjemtrup
Diva. There is really no other word to describe the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose perfectionist playing, glamorous style, and commanding presence inspires the kind of devotion usually reserved for operatic stars like Renée Fleming (who has also graced the stage at this year’s BBC Proms in London). And like Fleming, Mutter has an unmistakable sound that adds a personal stamp to anything she performs.
For her appearance at a BBC Prom on Monday, September 4, Mutter put aside the audience-pleasers—a Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Brahms—in favor of the Dvorak Violin Concerto, playing it with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck.
Dvorak’s violin concerto has never enjoyed the popularity of his cello concerto, even though the composer preferred it. The violin concerto was tricky for Dvorak from the outset, having been rejected by its dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, who never performed it. Joachim, perhaps fresh from the success of the Brahms the year before, did, however, offer plenty of advice to Dvorak. Did the composer take this advice? In an interview in the program book, Mutter herself points up the concerto’s central problem: an “orchestral texture, which can be very heavy and complex.”
Cutting through thick orchestral texture is not an insurmountable problem for Mutter, and here, from the double stops of the violin entrance to the very end, she built a wall of incredible lush sound. In the quietest moments, when the orchestration was still full of activity, Honeck coaxed the Pittsburgh Symphony into playing at extremely low volumes. Yet more than once Mutter didn’t take full advantage of this sympathetic scene-setting, continuing instead to produce fully present sound. But all was forgiven in the final Allegro giocoso, as she returned to full diva mode, her playing sparkling and bright. Her Dvorak performance inspired rapturous applause, and she returned to the stage for an energetic Gigue from Bach’s Partita in D minor as an encore.
Mutter, I should add, looked stunning in one of her trademark strapless gowns, this one in vivid red.
One of composer John Adams’ trademarks is his love of percussion-powered forward movement, as heard in Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and in the work that opened the Pittsburgh concert, Lollapalooza, written in 1995. Lollapalooza is the work’s title and also, in its five syllables, the central rhythmic motif, which drives the piece ever forward in a frantic seven minutes.
The modern, optimistic American energy of Lollapalooza is a sharp contrast to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which the Pittsburgh played in the concert’s second half. Honeck is an Austrian conductor who is determined to bring out Mahler’s Viennese-Bohemian roots, in part by harkening back to the playing styles of Mahler’s musicians. An intriguing idea, yet Honeck’s interpretation of the first was idiosyncratic, to say the least. I found it equal parts inspiring and mannered. I certainly could not fault the Pittsburghers’ playing, especially the winds and the brass—the horn players were rather diva-like themselves. Whatever new paths they are being led down by Honeck, who has been music director since 2008, the Pittsburgh, to judge by this concert, continues to be a seriously good orchestra.