Mutter’s memorable Bach towers in Carnegie recital

March 06, 2018
By David Wright
Anne-Sophie Mutter performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve Sherman

Anne-Sophie Mutter performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve Sherman

It isn’t easy sharing the bill with a monument of Western civilization. 

The recital by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall featured several items of interest: uncommonly approachable violin-and-piano sonatas by Johannes Brahms and the Polish modernist Krzysztof Penderecki, and a world premiere, no less, by André Previn.

But it was when Mutter walked onstage by herself and performed Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for Unaccompanied Violin, with its colossal concluding Chaconne, that the doors blew off.

That great set of 32 variations on a somber theme for just a bow and four strings, one of the most astounding musical compositions ever created, lasts nearly 20 minutes, longer than the other four movements of the partita combined.  It is an Everest every violinist hopes to climb someday, but performances as serenely magnificent as Mutter’s on Sunday remain rare.  It was a privilege to be present for one. 

The headline event of the afternoon was supposed to have been a new work by one of America’s grand old men of music. The eclectic composer, conductor and pianist Previn will turn 90 next year, but on the evidence of his new piece for violin and piano, The Fifth Season, he’s far from running out of musical ideas. 

Commissioned by Mutter and Carnegie Hall as a companion piece to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the one-movement piece ended up having little in common with these Baroque favorites besides a lively imagination and a short attention span.

A long, expressive violin solo led it off, slowly at first but becoming more animated, preparing the way for the piano’s peppy entrance. The process was repeated several times, with episodes that were reflective, even dreamy, alternating with jazzy syncopations and “dizzy fingers” passages for both players. (In a program note, the composer said Fantasia might have been an appropriate title, but he didn’t want his freeform piece confused with “dutifully intellectual” works by that name.)

A snappy coda brought Previn’s piece to a rousing conclusion. The composer acknowledged the warm applause from his seat in the first tier.

Mutter’s Bach solo began colorfully enough with four movements that made a tidy Baroque suite in themselves: a fast-flowing Allemande with the repeats taken softly, echo-style; a Courante with plenty of bow bite in its skipping tune; an inward-looking, tender Sarabande; and a spitfire Gigue, outlining its harmonic progression in shapely fast phrases.

Such vital Bach playing whetted one’s appetite for the Chaconne and Mutter did not disappoint. Starting modestly and keeping the whole massive structure in view, Mutter drew on a tonal palette ranging from silvery to whispery to robust as she marked the dramatic peaks and valleys along the journey.

A series of rapid string-crossing variations began as pianissimo wisps of fog and swelled eventually to organ-like sonority, with the violin’s booming G string as the pedals. The change from minor to major brought variations that glowed, soared, and preached. The violinist used vibrato only sparingly, but tellingly, and there was never a scratch or a harsh tone even in the music’s most passionate moments.

At last the key of D minor stole back in softly, leading to a brief series of variations and a final statement of the original theme, bringing the piece’s arc back to earth. The violinist released the final low D with a flick of the bow, setting off a roaring ovation.

It was a superstar moment, to be sure. Ironically, it was Mutter’s star billing that undid the next item on the program, Brahms’s Sonata No. 2 in A Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 100. 

Throughout the piece, Orkis, a proficient and musically sensitive pianist, seemed stuck in self-effacing “accompanist” mode. He played, as pianists say, “on top of the keys,” and his left foot was poised permanently over the una corda (soft) pedal, instead of pulled back the way pianists do when they’re leaning in to produce some real tone. And in Brahms chamber music, even a mellow sonata like this one, a weak piano is fatal.

Far from lording it over the pianist, Mutter seemed to be following her musical instincts and playing down to match him, and the two of them became enmeshed in a humbler-than-thou race. As a result, with a few masterful exceptions such as a lovely soft, high return of the theme in the slow movement, one might have been listening to a cruise-ship lounge duo on a lazy afternoon.

What better way to get out of the doldrums than with the fierce dissonances of Penderecki?  But by 1999, when he composed his Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, the ‘60s avant-gardist had mellowed somewhat, no longer flinging dense cluster chords but spreading out his dissonances in sinuous chromatic melodies.  With shapely phrases for the violin and infectious dance rhythms for the piano, he sounded like a Polish Bartók, although he did include a few piano clusters, just to keep his hand (or rather his forearm) in.

Like Previn’s piece, Penderecki’s sonata began with the violin alone, this time playing pizzicato, working up to another big piano entrance.  It’s hard to play a forearm smash self-effacingly, and Orkis in fact rose to the occasion throughout the sonata, engaging Mutter in tense dialogue in the first movement and driving a high-stepping scherzo in the second.

Both the sonata’s five-movement arch form and its mysterious, nocturnal middle movement had their roots in Bartók, although the ripe sonorities of both instruments looked back further, to Debussy or even Brahms.  A vigorous allegro with plenty of beefy sound from both instruments might have made a splashy finale for a four-movement sonata (and an entire recital), but Penderecki chose instead to complete the arch with a fifth movement, a wispy, attenuated look back over many of the work’s themes—music that needed all the players’ concentration, and got it.

At the bows, Mutter put an appreciative arm around Orkis’s back. They were a dynamic duo at last, continuing to trade remarks even in the schmaltzy encore, Mischa Elman’s arrangement of Schubert’s song “Ständchen.”

Carnegie Hall will present Sō Percussion and JACK Quartet in works by Philip Glass, Donnacha Dennehy, and Dan Trueman 7 p.m. Tuesday.; 212-247-7800.

2 Responses to “Mutter’s memorable Bach towers in Carnegie recital”

  1. Posted Mar 06, 2018 at 9:49 pm by mengkao tseng

    wish i was there…

  2. Posted Mar 14, 2018 at 12:25 pm by Elisabeth Matesky

    Delighted Anne Sophie Mutter continues on with great dignity, I’m a bit lost in understanding the music critic’s description of the last
    large D, usually dispatched from the G string 3rd position D in the
    Chaconne of Bach, mentioning something akin to a ‘flick of the bow’ by Ms. Mutter??

    Never having ‘flicked’ the bow in drawing & brushing the last D in a most important cluster of final notes concluded by the D, could the music critic explain what was meant by the term, ‘flick’ of the bow?My late violin mentor, Nathan Milstein, might have taken offense at being described as ending the Chaconne of Bach with a ‘flick’ of the last D!

    Surely, Ms. Mutter did not toss away the holy D ~ I rather suspect she gave it a last brushed breath’Up’ …

    Thank you for an enthusiastic critique borne upon hearing what was obviously a grand performance of the d minor Partita #2 for Unaccompanied Violin of Johann Sebastian Bach by proven ‘Star’ Violinist, Anne Sophie Mutter …

    Elisabeth Matesky / Chicago