Brahms: Violin-Piano Sonatas 1-3

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 19 November 2008 4 stars

Anne-Sophie Mutter, copyright Deutsche GrammophonA full house, and in the Festspielhaus of Baden-Baden that means 2500 seats, expected the appearance of Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis in their Brahms Sonata evening, with which they are now touring in three Continents.

One still remembers the beginning of her meteoric career some twenty-five years ago when Anne-Sophie Mutter, vigorously promoted by Karajan, appeared as the first female star in a firmament largely dominated by male violinists. Her impetuosity, and sometimes wilfully rich vibrato, even if in the service of superb musicianship, remarkable even in more mature artists, soon earned her, particularly in the UK, some detrimental notices.

Nevertheless, in the course of a slowly maturing process, during which she also distinguished herself in almost statesmanlike dignity with bilingual brilliance, support and even creation of meaningful charities, fearless engagement in the fight for human rights and the promotion of the careers of young violinists, she still finds herself in the company of a very select few at the top of her profession.

Her string chamber music partners Yuri Bashmet and Lynn Harrell are two of the finest performers of this art. Many leading contemporary composers have dedicated important concertos to her. Her recent recording of Gubaidulina’s Second Violin Concerto, a monumental and deeply philosophical work, was widely acclaimed even by formerly critical reviewers. She will present the first European performance of Previn’s Concerto for Violin and Double Bass in December with the LSO at the Barbican. Her concert engagements are filled to capacity for years ahead.

During her forthcoming US tour of Bach concerts, she asked one of her most talented protégées, Vilde Frang, a young Norwegian violinist about whom we shall hear a lot in the future, to play the second violin part in the Bach Two-Violin Concerto – a typical gesture in promoting the careers of the next generation.

Her partner in her almost missionlike persistence throughout three Continents in presenting the sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and now Brahms, Lambert Orkis, is a Canadian pianist and musicologist of high reputation. They were welded together through many hundreds of recitals into an exemplary unity, thinking, phrasing and sounding like one.

Anne-Sophie Mutter has an extraordinary stage presence. Dressed always strikingly in beautifully designed gowns, with her alabaster shoulders always left bare to display even more artistically her Stradivarius violin, she unwittingly reminds one of the stage appearance of Anna Netrebko, whose statuesque beauty is an integral part of her artistic persona. The difference, to me, is that one can listen to Anne-Sophie Mutter with closed eyes, and still be carried along with the individualistic beauty and subtlety of her playing.

Anne-Sophie Mutter, copyright Deutsche GrammophonStriding along the wide stage, like being lifted on a wave of genuinely heartfelt applause, Lambert Orkis traipses a few haltering steps after her, with the benevolent smile of a jovial uncle. To many in the audience this reduced his role to one of a mere accompanist. Nothing could be further from the truth, but Anne-Sophie Mutter just cannot fail to dominate a stage on which she appears. On reaching the piano, they immediately started playing, as if wanting consciously to avoid being voyeuristically ogled by the audience.

Raising her bowing elbow high, she now allows her bow to play almost by itself, just by its own gravity. This achieves truly breathtaking diminuendos, dying away, but still floating in the blackness of that enormous airspace. This new subtlety and delicacy marked particularly the Andante Tranquillo of the A Major Sonata, and the G Major Sonata ended in a dreamlike suspense that lasted long after they finished playing.

Yet when in the A Major Sonata Brahms resorted to sudden outbursts of manly vigour, encouraged by the attentions of a singer, whom he even contemplated marrying – much to the chagrin of his platonically adored Clara Schumann – she went back to her aggressive and forceful bowing, her whole upper body taking part in the widely swinging effort. Yet the sound always remained pure and like burnished gold.

Carried on the waves of heartily enthusiastic applause, they gave by way of three encores a brilliantly virtuosic and yet wonderfully schmaltzy rendering of the No 1, 7 and 2 Hungarian Dances by Brahms. A wonderful evening, and from me, humble gratitude to Brahms, who will live centuries after the names of many of our contemporary composers will be buried only in footnotes in a twenty-second century Grove's…

By Francis Shelton

Photos: Copyright Deutsche Grammophon