A lightness of being in Rihm premiere with Mutter and New York Philharmonic
At some point in the past decade, impresarios came up with a neat idea. They would hand over the job of programming to soloists, who would be given a concert series of their own to curate over the course of a season. The soloist, so the reasoning went, would bring their fame and box office pull to a whole row of concerts featuring not only themselves; they would bring their own perspective on music to the stage, and leverage their connections. The result would be intriguing, perhaps challenging, but above all fresh.
Unfortunately, Thursday’s New York Philharmonic concert, in which Anne-Sophie Mutter presented three violin concertos by Mozart with a new work by Wolfgang Rihm, felt more as if a kid had been put in charge of planning a four-course meal: there was chocolate for starter, main course and dessert.
It was Mutter’s second concert as the Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence with the New York Philharmonic after an opening concert of Beethoven string trios. There was a chamber music feel about last night’s production, too, with a pared-down ensemble directed by Mutter herself in the Mozart concertos, and by the engaging young English conductor Michael Francis in Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel.
Rihm has written previous works for Mutter and she specifically commissioned this one to be premiered alongside Mozart’s violin concertos, using the same instrumentation. In the program, the title of Lichtes Spiel: Ein Sommerstück was translated as “Light Game: A Summer Piece,” but it also puns on the term “child’s play” and conveys a sense of clearing, of something gradually lightening.
In the event, however, the work seemed to subscribe more to a Splenda kind of “light.” The single, predominantly slow and quiet, movement, lasting about 17 minutes, proved an excellent vehicle for Mutter’s luscious legato playing and offered occasional moments of arresting tone color, but not much to bite your teeth into.
Rihm’s music, at least since he broke with his Modernist teachers in the 1980s, is most often described as neo-Romantic, and there were echoes of early Schoenberg and late Strauss as well as, perhaps inevitably, of the slow movement of Berg’s violin concerto. Rendered in Mutter’s honeyed vibrato, snippets of melodies beckoned seductively before disappearing into suspended orchestra chords, and dizzying high passages added flashes of brilliant light. But there was little sense of direction or purpose. On two occasions, the pace picked up, meters changed, and a rhythmic, mischievous passage in the violin, echoed by mocking muted horns, provided a frustratingly short glimpse of real playfulness. The piece, however, ended as it began, with a coy, melting sigh.
With its clever orchestration, Lichtes Spiel may well find itself into the repertoire of other violinists looking for a light and inoffensive contemporary work to pair with a Mozart concerto. Yet Mutter’s decision to program it with no fewer than three proved a test of even the sweetest tooth.
She performed concertos number 3, 1, and 5, with Rihm’s work slotted in after the opening G-major concerto. Mutter’s approach to Mozart is unapologetically Romantic, every note round and shimmering, her sound a marvel of richness and beauty. This made for some memorable moments in the slow movements, but in the Allegros, Mutter’s vibrato acts like the suspension pedal on the piano, blurring the contours and taking the bite out of the furious spiccato passages.
As a conductor, Mutter contents herself with beating time in semicircular motion much in the way of a teacher leading a group of first-graders through an end-of-year sing-along. The members of the New York Philharmonic took it good-naturedly, and seemed to relish the opportunity to play entirely without conductor whenever the violinist put bow to string again. They followed even her most frenetic tempos with ease.
The most engaging of the Mozart concerti was the A major or “Turkish” concerto with which Mutter finished the evening. She brought a genuine sense of mystery to the minor passage of the slow movement, her violin haunting and fragile above an orchestra that provided beautifully nuanced color. The third movement finally saw Mutter digging for earthier tones, bringing a bit of Sarasate-like sass to the gypsy tune and even risking the occasional whistling string.
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 pm. Tuesday. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656