Mutter and Orkis remain a timeless team in Carnegie Hall recital

March 14, 2019
By Eric C. Simpson
Anne-Sophie Mutter performed with Lambert Orkis Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis performed Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

For several decades now, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis have been one of the great recital teams on the circuit. The last few years of their collaboration have produced some memorable evenings at Carnegie Hall. And the program they presented Tuesday night ranks among the very best.

Poise, sensitivity, and a sense of adventure were all on display in Tuesday’s recital. The evening began with Mozart’s Sonata in E minor, K. 304, where Mutter showed an unconventional approach, bringing out bold colors in the music. Her plain-white approach to the main theme of the Allegro, without vibrato and bowed over the fingerboard, drew a strong contrast to the passages in which she found more sonic intensity. Smoky little moments of portamento in the second movement might not have been strictly “correct,” but it was refreshing to hear such an original approach to a familiar piece.

More Mozart opened the second half. The K. 454 Sonata in B-flat major was more broadly traditional in interpretation, but their execution was superb. Mutter brought a sun-kissed brightness to her tone in the first movement without turning morose.

Orkis’s playing in both Mozart sonatas was sublime, finding rich expression in relatively simple phrasing, landing every gesture with a sparkling touch. All evening he proved an ideal collaborator, playing in perfect dialogue with Mutter. At 73, the pianist shows complete command of the keyboard, never feeling rushed or uncomfortable, and coloring each breathing phrase with exquisite delicacy. 

In Poulenc’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, which closed the program, Orkis conjured up a cold, empty room with just a progression of chords. The sonata as a whole was bracing, moving from a sustained feeling of suspense to piercing melodic cries to soulful crooning. In the finale, both musicians played with raging energy until suddenly the passion of the music broke, leaving only emptiness in the closing bars.

Mutter and Orkis have made a habit of presenting world premieres at all of their recent Carnegie concerts. Tuesday’s debut was Ghost Trio by Sebastian Currier, featuring cellist Daniel Müller-Schott as a special guest. Currier’s piano trio is in nine movements, some no more than a sentence or two. Its title is a nod, of course, to Beethoven’s Op. 70, no. 1, and quotations of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert pay homage to the most celebrated piano trios of the past.

These quotations are largely subtle, using the past as inspiration and crafting an original, often unsettling work. The first movement is indeed “Lyrical,” as its title suggests, but also unhinged, a wandering duet between the strings. In “Ghost Scherzo,” a constant feeling of motion weaves its way among the instruments, starting in the rough scrabble of the strings, and moving into rolling cascades in the piano as violin and cello sing a haunting melody on top. “Mysterious,” the seventh movement, is over in a flicker, but leaves a powerful, icy image. The sixth, “Syncopated,” got its own encore to warm applause, though it jars somewhat with the rest of the piece, a jazz-inflected dance with rhythms in constant tension. 

All of these works received superior performances, but the one that really stood out was Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Here we heard Mutter and Orkis, the ideal team, in easy conversation with each other. Both showed mastery of color in the opening Allegro vivo, Orkis shimmering in his arpeggios while Mutter fashioned warm mists and then broke through them into sunlight. 

Sensitivity and flair combined in this interpretation; there’s a seriousness and intelligence about Mutter’s playing, but she never lets those qualities get in the way of her sense of fun. A humorous banter between violin and piano arose in the playful Intermède: Orkis visibly relished the musical quips of his part, and translated them into witty playing.

Tuesday’s recital featured two encores, both by André Previn, the American composer and Mutter’s former husband, who died two weeks ago. First was the opening movement of Previn’s Piano Trio No. 1, a smiling, energetic choice that focused on life rather than grief. The second was the “Song” from Tango Song and Dance for violin and piano, a breathtaking little arioso, into which Mutter poured deep emotion.

After hearing a recital like this, one can’t help but admire that Mutter has been one of the leading violinists on the concert stage for nearly forty years. In her teens she was already a superb solo performer, and her career has never flagged since, as her playing has only grown in maturity without losing anything in technique. To be one of the greats of a generation is impressive enough; to sustain that excellence over multiple generations of artists is rare, and a privilege to witness.

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