Surely it’s not far-fetched to describe Anne-Sophie Mutter as the Nicole Kidman of classical violin. Both are accomplished, mature women — and mothers — whose beauty and glamorous images, so carefully cultivated, are best thought of as a counterpoint rather than a barrier to their work as serious artists.
Certainly in Mutter’s case, there has been nothing frivolous about her performances here over the years. A kind of High Seriousness has characterized her recitals for the Schubert Club, two of which were in-depth explorations of the work of a single composer: Mozart in 2006 and Brahms in 1991. (Think of Kidman touring the nation in a program of Shakespeare heroines).
Mutter’s recital program for the Schubert Club Monday night at the Ordway Center in St. Paul was more varied. There were works by Mozart, Schubert, Saint-Saëns and Lutoslawski, the Polish composer who died in 1994 — all challenging endeavors for both the violinist and her longtime collaborator, pianist Lambert Orkis.
The Lutoslawski, the Partita for Violin and Piano, offered a special connection to the Ordway and served as a good example of Mutter’s avid involvement in contemporary music. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra commissioned a work from this composer to be premiered at the newly-opened Ordway in January, 1985. What was eventually performed that month (by violinist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Marc Neikrug) was a different piece by the same composer. The music that Lutoslawski had started writing, but temporarily abandoned, ended up a year later as a work for Mutter, who recorded it and made it a part of her recital programs.
Structured in five short, widely-contrasting movements, the Partita begins in a flurry of rapid-fire passagework from both instruments before settling into a section of brooding, melancholy rumination. Wispy, high-note passages in the violin eventually take hold, and there are brief interludes of aleatoric — improvised — sections and, near the end, a sly reference to the composer’s countryman, Chopin. The performance of this witty, deft score was also meant to acknowledge 2013 as the centenary of Lutoslawski’s birth.
The concert opened with a bright and thoughtful account of Mozart’s Sonata No. 27 in G Major, K. 379. This was a special challenge, since Mozart gave most of the dramatic utterances to the piano in this piece, and it’s easy for the keyboard to dominate. And yet these two musicians, who have been musical partners for more than two decades, have developed such refined rapport that they spoke almost as one voice, Orkis approaching the music with a breadth of line and a joyous sense of song, and Mutter displaying her rich tone and unmatched ability to create nuance within a phrase.
Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, played just before intermission, was full of nimbleness and grace. There was a magical moment at the start: the haze from the violin over the tremolandos in the piano. Mutter began her sustained notes with just a whisper, as if an angel were slowly rising from a body of water. The evening’s finale, Saint-Saëns’ Sonata No. 1 in D minor, displayed the requisite big-scale dynamism and brilliance, while the Adagio movement proceeded with the effortless, intimate charm of chamber music.
At the end the capacity audience gave the players an enthusiastic standing ovation. For the record, Mutter wore a tight-fitting sunflower-yellow strapless gown flared below the knee. Orkis wore your basic black-tie outfit. The last of three encores was the “Meditation: from Massenet’s “Thaïs.”
Michael Anthony writes about music.