In full bloom: Anne-Sophie Mutter
"Excuse my English," Anne-Sophie Mutter says with a laugh. "I know it's rather flowery, but that's as good as it gets." As it turns out she speaks it better than I do; her German must be a model of rhetorical control. Still, it's clear why, as one of the finest violinists in the world, she might feel her second language ranks poorly as a mode of expression. It is our good fortune in Abu Dhabi that we'll get to hear her fingers do the talking when she comes to the Emirates Palace to play a trio of violin trios this weekend as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics season.
For now it's only worth noting that, in music as in speech, Mutter seems to have been reconciling herself to floweriness. The album cover for her most recent CD, a 2009 recording of Felix Mendelssohn's violin concerto, stands out against the solemnity of the bulk of her discography. It pictures the violinist in one of her trademark shoulderless dresses - this one in electric blue - standing in front of fuchsia-coloured landscape while petals rain from the heavens.
She has always been a glamourpuss (she may, in fact, be one of the archetypes behind the trend for the soloist as pin-up) but her album covers have tended towards the moody, tinted monochrome look. Mutter has lightened up. It took her, she says, a long time to reach this point. "Maybe when you are very young you always fall into the trap of feeling you always have to be extremely serious and extremely thoughtful," she ventures. She first tackled the Mendelssohn violin concerto very early in her career, soon after her discovery, aged 13, by the conductor Herbert von Karajan. She found it, not to put too fine a point on it, lightweight and vacuously pretty.
"It seemed to be not running deep enough for my, back then, very stern and very serious and thoughtful German soul," she says. "After a while I just basically gave up on it. I said OK, fine, there is so much other glorious repertoire. Why should I always have my personal Waterloo?" She moved on to other things, whiling away the next 30 years with some definitive interpretations of the canon and endless premieres of new work.
Two factors persuaded her to revisit the piece last year: Mendelssohn's 200th anniversary and the 80th birthday of her friend, the conductor Kurt Masur, who talked her into it. And now, in her mid-forties, the light dawned. "Suddenly I could understand what I couldn't comprehend when I was a teenager," she says, "that there is much more than meets the eye. All these beautiful melodies which effortlessly just pour out of this man, they do have a very deep-running soul, and it's not just beautiful on the surface."
The discovery prompted her to revisit Mendelssohn's life. She went on a pilgrimage to his home in Leipzig, and pored over the biographical record. "If you know more about the personal level, you cannot do anything other than admire him deeply for being such a rounded humanist," she says. "The fact that he built the first conservatory in Leipzig and that he collected a lot of money to build this Bach monument, and all of that. I think musicians should not only be concerned about playing better and cleaner and faster. That's so egocentric. Music is a bridge between cultures- It has to serve a social purpose. It has to elevate us."
The pieces Mutter has chosen for Abu Dhabi ought to do that. Given her new affection for Mendelssohn, it's no surprise that she should play his Piano Trio No 1. Mozart's Trio in B Flat Major is a safe bet. And then there's a trio by her former husband André Previn, whom she divorced in 2006 without visible animosity. They still play together; several times during our conversation she calls him a genius, though this has the air of dispassionate assessment rather than empty blandishment. As she notes in another context: "Unfortunately and fortunately, there is an objective way of looking at a piece of music."
In any case, she's confident about the selection. "It's one of these extremely uplifting programmes where also the players go offstage and just feel wonderful," she says. "Because it's elegant, it's moving in the slow movements- For an audience that might not all of them be totally accustomed to that type of repertoire, it is sort of the ideal way to start the love of classical music - and also contemporary music."
That last part is important: the concert wouldn't be an adequate introduction to Mutter if it did not include something modern. She's as comfortable battling her way through thickets of Alban Berg as she is in the sunlit palazzi of Mozart and few performers with her level of fame or commercial clout have done as much to champion new music. The Previn was chosen carefully. "I'm particularly excited to bring a contemporary piece to Abu Dhabi that still is not going to require a tremendous knowledge of music," she says. "Just an open ear and open heart. And like many pieces André writes, this is fun. It's extremely skilfully written, of course devilishly difficult- It is going to just round up and give a very special flavour to an otherwise rather classically-inspired evening."
For Mutter, working with living composers is "the most exciting part of this wonderful life". Our interview takes place in the midst of rehearsals for a new piece by Wolfgang Rihm that Mutter will premiere during a residency with the New York Philharmonic in November. The same stretch will include the first performance of a new piece by a Sebastian Currier, sweetly described by Mutter as "a rather young American composer" (he's 50).
In 2008 she played the world premiere of In Tempus Praesens, a dark, strenuous violin concerto written for her by Sofia Gubaidulina. Reviewers found Mutter to be predictably, and Gubaidulina unusually, excellent. "That was an extremely frightening process," Mutter recalls. "You're always that close to failing, and then having a composer being kind of accepting what you're doing - it's wonderful." Indeed, that's why she does it.
"Finally you have a dialogue," she says with feeling. "You have the possibility of, if needed, asking the composer about tempo, about phrasing - this terra nova feeling is so gratifying because all the other beautiful works, you never get any feedback- You never are quite certain that you really fully do it justice. Whereas with a contemporary piece, either the composer screams at you and throws you out and is never going to compose for you again - OK, at least you know that you have totally misread it. Or, if you are lucky, it is a fruitful collaboration."
The remarkable thing about the pieces for the Emirates Palace concert, she says, is that they were all played by their own composers first. "Mendelssohn did premiere the piece, as did Mozart his trio, and as we know André Previn's piano trio was performed last year in conjunction with his 80th birthday," she says. "I find it interesting that we have a programme which is not only composed by three geniuses but also actually performed by them." Does this weight of precedent constrain her own interpretations? It does not.
"Most composers who performed - either played or conducted - their pieces, are known for being very variable in their approach to their own and other composers' pieces," she says. "Let's not forget that we have to relive them, and not only replay the pieces. Otherwise they would have died during the last 250 years. Classical music is a very alive form of art because we do try to expose different aspects of the score every evening in playing them."
And as Mutter's experience with the Mendelssohn concerto illustrates, a new breakthrough might be just around the corner. "There are always short moments of light, where you've suddenly come to grips with things you have always struggled with." She laughs. "I'm very happy to report that this happens to artists in all age frames." Hence the Mutter we hear today: increasingly flowery, still as good as it gets.
Anne-Sophie Mutter will be performing at the Emirates Palace on Saturday at 8pm. Tickets: 800-4669.
Published: January 21, 2010 04:00 AM