After rough start, Mutter and Orkis serve up ample fire and musical rewards

March 12, 2013

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis performed a recital Sunday afternoon for Symphony Center Presents.

Anne-Sophie Mutter returned to Chicago Sunday afternoon looking timelessly elegant and glamorous in a signature strapless form-fitting yellow satin gown.

The celebrated German violinist’s program for Symphony Center Presents with recital partner Lambert Orkis was a characteristic one, focused on violin-and-piano European cornerstones with one venturesome 20th-century work thrown into the mix.

The afternoon got off to a less-than-stellar start with some surprisingly rough-hewn Mozart. Granted, the Classical-era warm-up is a programming staple. Yet considering Mutter’s history in this repertoire–her early disc of the Second and Fourth Concertos with Riccardo Muti remains one of her finest recordings—it was bit jarring to encounter such a lackluster, even sloppy account of the Violin Sonata in G, K. 379, with wiry tone and pitchy intonation. Orkis’s keyboard work, however, was unfailingly supple and polished, as it was throughout the program.

Schubert never wrote a violin concerto or even a violin sonata, but his single movement Fantasy in C major is the closest thing we have to the latter. Cast in a single movement of seven connected section, it offers a rich vein of Schubertian thematic richness, and ample display opportunities for both violinist and pianist.

From her first entrance, playing with quiet gleaming tone over Orkis’s running piano accompaniment, Schubert’s Fantasy found Mutter back on her game. Both players were fully in synch with the confiding intimacy of the music, as well as the breakout bravura moments, the ebb and flow judged with great skill, and the two almost conversational in their exchanges. Mutter’s silvery tone and gentle stealing in of the main melody of Schubert’s song Sei mir gegrusst was magical, and both players brought exuberant virtuosity to the final pages.

Witold Lutoslawski’s Partita was written for Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug in 1984, but the composer arranged an orchestrated concerto version for Mutter three years later. Mutter’s selective arsenal of contemporary music has always shown exceptional insight and taste and so too here, with her compelling performance of the original Partita duo version another fitting tribute to the Polish composer in his centennial year.

Written in five shortish sections, the Partita is typical of Lutislawski’s late style, his angular asperity, and bursts of forceful aggression alternating with Impressionistic lyrical fragments and bluesy note-bending passages. Mutter and Orkis were both wholly inside the idiom, powerfully pointing up dynamic contrasts and the spiky harmonic writing. Mutter added plenty of sand and grit to the abrasive writing for fiddle with Orkis’s nervy bravura on the same intensely wrought level.

Saint-Saens’ Violin Sonata No. 1 is a much better known quantity, surely crafted and characteristic of the French composer in its fluent Gallic melody. Mutter and Orkis gave the lyrical element its due but the combustible fire each brought to the final movement was edge-of-the-seat thrilling. Mutter’s blistering sprint at the coda was taken at such a jaw-dropping tempo, if it were an LP you would think it was playing at the wrong speed. Her even articulation and accuracy at that blazing pace was indeed impressive and received a well-deserved ovation.

Repeated enthusiastic applause brought Mutter and Orkis back out for three encores. Mutter played with silky tone–and fitfully droopy intonation—in Massenet’s Meditation from Thais. There was ample gypsy spirit in the Hungarian Dance No. 2, one of the less frequently heard of Brahms’ popular set. And the afternoon closed with a lovely performance of Ravel’s Habanera, rendered with an atmospheric sense of hazy Iberian sunshine.

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