interview with Anne-Sophie Mutter

October 10, 2008, 11:08 AM · It's easy to get a little intimidated by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, just looking at the record.

At age 45, she has a stunning discography: with 53 composers represented in more than 60 recordings over the last 30 years. When she was new on the scene, she was famously associated with the conductor Herbert von Karajan; she has gone on to work with many, if not most, of the most important conductors and musicians of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Photo by Anja Frers/ Deutsche Grammophon

She has championed new music, to say the least. Looking at her biographical timeline, one sees the breadth of her contributions: her world premieres include Witold Lutoslawski's "Chain 2" in 1986; Norbert Moret's "En reve" in 1988; Wolfgang Rihm's "Gesungene Zeit" in 1992; Sebastian Currier's "Aftersong" in 1994; Krzysztof Penderecki's "Metamorphosen" in 1995; Penderecki's "Second Violin Concerto" (dedicated to her) in 1998; Penderecki's "Violin Sonata" (commissioned by her) in 2000; Andre Previn's "Tango Song and Dance" and "Violin Concerto" (both written for her) and Henri Dutilleux's "Sur le meme accord" (dedicated to her) in 2002; Previn's "Concerto for Violin and Double Bass" with bassist Roman Patkolo; and of course, the recording Mutter has released this week: Sofia Gubaidulina's "Violin Concerto In tempus praesens" (written for her).

This is not to mention Mutter's recordings of the more "standard" modern repertoire, for example Alban Berg's Violin Concerto and Bela Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2, Igor Stravinsky's Violin Concerto...

Talking with Mutter this week about her new recording of Bach and Gubaidulina, I found her to be personally warm, and passionate about the new works she is bringing to the world. Like the rest of us, she is evolving: she spoke of her recent embrace of the Baroque bow for performances of Bach, and how this has opened her to a new kind of intimacy with these works. We spoke about her litany of shoulder rest experiments during her early development as a violinist (wasn't easy for her, either!), of new music and old, of motherhood, and even a little bit about beautiful, sleeveless designer gowns.

Laurie Niles: Very few of us get to play a brand-new piece, a world premiere. I wondered how you approach a totally new piece of music -- is it different from your approach to a piece of music that is standard repertoire?

Anne-Sophie Mutter: There is common ground, of course, like thoroughly studying all the details. But I feel that with a contemporary piece which has never been played before, you can be more innovative. You are less burdened by certain expectations. With pieces that have been studied and played for the last 250 years, much of what we inherit, in terms of cultural taste, has to do with our subconscious. It's something we just grow up with; it's almost the air we are breathing. Looking at a piece by Bach, for example, it is much more difficult to get away from habits, good and bad. If it's a violin concerto by Gubaidulana, your approach is fresher; it's probably also more objective. Although being subjective is ultimately what music needs in order to really bond with an audience. You don't just want to objectificate the notes. But you don't have the burden of history. It's a wonderful luxury, if that's the word, to set the path for future generations and their understanding of that contemporary piece you are bringing to the world.

Laurie: Sometimes, particularly as a violinist -- I don't think guitarists have the same thing quite -- there is such history. It can almost be a trap. I remember hearing a performance of yours, of the Beethoven Concerto, and you did something very different with the cadenza. I really enjoyed it, but then I wondered how many people would be...

Anne-Sophie: Appalled? (laughing)

Laurie: Appalled! Exactly, how do you deal with that?

Anne-Sophie: I mean, the only one who will hold you up for that is the composer. The composer is the only person you really have to serve, and whose intentions you always have to keep in mind. But as we know through history, composers have allowed themselves different viewpoints on different evenings and performances -- especially the ones who were the conductors of their own pieces, or performers of their own concerti. There is not one formula.

I don't think history is a burden, but it makes us aware of the fact that we should not take interpretations for granted. Interpretations of great masters of the past - they are extremely valuable reference points. Yesterday when I was playing here, a young colleague came and we were discussing Bach solo sonatas. He was working on it and he wanted to know if I could think of a reference recording, and I mentioned the name of Nathan Milstein. He was probably 15 years old, and he had never heard of of him. I'm rather saddened and shocked to see that this goes across the border, it's no matter which country you are, there's a generation after me which is not aware of the grand masters of the last century; that's extremely disturbing. It's kind of a common disease of the young generation, who seems to think that whatever is out there as a new recording is the ultimate truth.

Laurie: Not by a long shot.

Anne-Sophie: Nope.

Laurie: There's been whole entire movement, a lot of change in how we approach Bach. If you were to listen to an early 20th century interpretation of Bach, it would be very different than a recent recording.

Anne-Sophie: Interesting to see how different eras have brought a different focus on pieces which we've known for such a long time. The so-called original instrument movement has certainly brought enlightenment in some parts of the research, if it's only the fact that today we have scores which refer in every little detail of articulation and dynamics to what the composer wanted in the 18th and 19th century.

I remember when I started the Mozart concerti, when I was 10, 11, 12. There was no Barenreiter (urtext). You actually had to go to Salzburg, to the archive, in order to find the various different versions of the concerti. Sometimes notes even differ. It's not only a question of the trills, decorations and dynamics, but also articulation. So we really have all the tools at hand, but we shouldn't take that as an easy way out. With tools at hand, I also mean all these CDs out, to hear musicians make a conglomerate of what has worked. It's just exciting to find your own way of looking at a piece, still keeping in mind the stylistic period you have to serve.

In fact, one of the exciting things about playing a contemporary piece, to come back to that, is the fact that finally you have somebody to talk to, and ask questions and get feedback. It's probably the greatest moment, as a musician, is when the composer approves of your understanding of his work. It's such a relief.

Laurie: Now this is not the first time you have worked with a live composer...

Anne-Sophie: No, I've been giving world performances for 22 years, if I'm not mistaken. So half my life.

Laurie: What's sort of the common thread when you're working with a modern composer? I'm sure they're all different.

Anne-Sophie: I think that's the common thread! (laughing) I never disturb their work, I never ask for anything in particular. I'm just the receiver. And so far I've been extremely lucky, and I'm endlessly grateful for every single piece I was invited to premiere, because all of them have been extremely special, and there is not one weak composition. That's very rare.

Laurie: That's very true, because you never know what you're going to get when you commission something.

Many people really don't understand 20th and 21st century music; they would just as soon listen to the Bach part of your CD and throw the rest away. So I would love to talk about what they are missing if they don't give it a chance.

Anne-Sophie: Of course, we cannot generalize, but you are not trying to do that. I just want to point out that I'm not a total and 100 percent fan of everything which has ever been written in modern times, and I don't like everything from the 18th and 19th century either. There are times in the life of a musician, and also of a listener and music lover, where certain periods or certain composers appeal to you more than others.

I needed long years to understand (Alban) Berg, for example. That always was a difficult composer for me. Eventually the moment was right (to record the Berg concerto), but it just didn't drop into the chair. I had to work for it. I was studying it thoroughly, but I just didn't fall in love with it. And I'm a musician who needs to have the emotional bond with music. Otherwise, if it only stays a cerebral exercise, I don't feel the need to bring it on stage -- because I might not be able to play it in a way which would be good enough, convincing enough, exciting enough, for an audience to really grab it, enjoy it and be inspired by it.

So Gubaidulina is obviously a composer who has mastered the form. She has so much emotional depth and incredible, unbelievable intensity in her writing and in the way she orchestrates. The wonderful story she tells about conceiving the In Tempus Praesens concerto is that she hears this gigantic sound construction, which she tries to bring to paper, making it transparent, and kind of threading it out... As she's in the process of writing it down, it's fading. She is not able to act fast enough. And what is even more touching is the fact that she says often she hears sounds which there is no orchestra she could give it to. So what she brings to paper probably is only a fraction of what it could be. I tell you, the fraction she brings to paper is hair-raising. It's a life-changing experience, because she doesn't shy away from enormous intensity. Some contemporary composers do, because they feel the need for more of a total objectivity. That's not my cup of tea.

I'm a great admirer of Gubaidulina because, very much like Bach, she is able to be a masterful, skillful and extremely sophisticated writer. She has proportion in her mind: relation between the five sections of the violin concerto, for example. This is not a composition which is based on writing things down because they sound lush and gorgeous, no. This is a process of at least three different levels of work. First she paints the low and high registers in light and dark colors. This violin concerto is the story of Sophia, the goddess of who in a way is the lonely soul against, if you may, society. Sophia of course is represented by the high registers of the violin, which is the only violin in the orchestral score. Then you have the dark and kind of haunting strings, which are the dark part of the score. After she lines out the balance between the light and the dark -- the kind of philosophical approach -- then she goes through the pain of putting everything in a formula, which has to do with tempo relations between the five segments. It is actually mathematical, so the relationship to Bach is very apparent.

But the genius of this piece is that you would never be disturbed by the architecture of the piece, but rather just be totally fascinated by the music. It's still expressivity, but it's music which is written in her language. It is nothing like anything else ever written. Although, of course, she comes from a tradition where she is obviously very much influenced by the music of the 18th and 19th century. But she makes it her own.

Laurie: It's not easy, is it?

Anne-Sophie: Whenever I talk to composers, I see how much -- almost pain is behind the piece. And specifically in this concerto there is a lot of pain. Go to the 40 bars before the cadenza. She almost refers to that scene as a crucifixion of Sophia. It's a really intense moment, where the orchestra has this percussive motive, which is standing there like a stone: unmovable destiny -- and the violin is trying to escape. After that there's an incredibly long pause, then the beginning of the cadenza. It's an incredible piece, and I was very moved to see that the audience in Switzerland, at the world premiere, really got it. I guess that there is a message in great art which we can relate to, even if it sounds alien to us,

Laurie: Since you've also paired this piece with Bach Concertos, and also you are playing a lot of Bach this month, I'd like to ask you a question from several members: will you ever record all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas?

Anne-Sophie: I don't have, and I never had, long-term recording projects. I just hate the feeling of having to do something for a recording in a three-year time frame. So I really don't have any answer to that, other than I don't think it's going to come soon. It is not something one can pull out of the hat. There are many other things one could pull out of the hat because they are in your daily repertoire, on stage. I really don't know. It's a little bit like the Berg Concerto: the moment has to be right. Of course, the longer that you wait, it's not going to get any easier.

Laurie: Tell me a little bit about your evolution with Baroque music. I'm about the same age as you, and this whole Baroque movement has taken place during our lifetime, and the early mentors I had, at least, had a completely different approach to Bach than many people now would. I noticed you're using a Baroque bow for this recording, how long have you been using a Baroque bow?

Anne-Sophie: About two years. The Baroque bow works wonderfully for a recording. I just love the airiness, the transparency and the purity of the sound. But to play that subtle, doesn't really work well in a large hall. The articulation works in a large hall. It was very important for me to bring that quality of articulation and inner voicing to the recording. You can achieve those qualities more easily (with a Baroque bow) because you don't have this pasty sound clone in your way. But on stage, it's a little lost. So there are some performance techniques which work in some environments, and some don't. You do have to adjust. Of course on tour we also play with Baroque bows. But I think on the recording, you hear even more subtle things than you will hear in a large hall.

Laurie: So you use a different technique in the concert hall than you do in the recording studio.

Anne-Sophie: Yes. But (using Baroque bows) has helped us for the articulation of the third movement of the Bach. The whole dance-like feeling, the whole spin -- the joie de vivre which is totally gone if you use too moderate a tempo, if you are not really taking seriously the articulation. The articulation -- especially in the a minor concerto -- is really difficult to do, if at all possible to do in an elegant way, with a modern bow.

I'm not a great believer in so-called authentic playing; we are all born in the 20th or 21st century, and we cannot shrug off what we expect of diversity of colors we are able to achieve with a contemporary bow. But what you lose with a contemporary bow is transparency of sound and the ability to use Bach's phrasing, which is very important.

Laurie: What kind of bows do you have? Who made them?

Anne-Sophie: I have American bows, I'm only using contemporary bows. One bowmaker is from Washington, D.C., (Donald) Cohen, and the other one is (Benoit) Rolland, who lives in Boston, and I'm always switching between these makers. I don't know how many contemporary bows I have -- a lot. These are the makers of my concert bows. My Baroque bow is done by a man in Munich, who specializes in 16th and 17th century, (Peter) Benedek.

Laurie: How else has your Baroque approach changed over the years?

Anne-Sophie: Tempis have changed, because of the Baroque bow, which of course gives it a totally different outlook. I would say, I'm totally crazy about inner voices. I'm not at all interested in the soloist's voice, in terms of musical structure. Every day, on this tour, there are little subtle things I'm telling the orchestra, and I'm so excited about it because it's such complex music. It's like the veins in a body. We shouldn't only look at the body, but be aware of the many arteries we have, and these arteries in Bach's music are so vital, because they give the pulse of the music. That's where the blood is running, and that is what I am mostly concerned about.

So it's transparency, it's speed, it's inner voices, and it's a different sound aesthetic, a more leaner sound aesthetic.

Laurie: I have a different question, one about being a woman with a successful career, and also being a mother. How have you handled motherhood, along with being a concert violinist and soloist? What kinds of adjustments did you have to make over the years, to make it work?

Anne-Sophie: For many years, when my daughter was born, (she's now 17), I of course cut down the amount of concerts, and I also started to shorten my trips abroad and for seven years, between being a widow, which is now 13 years, and now, I stopped going to the Far East altogether, in order not to add that to my schedule.

Of course, children come first, and being a single mom makes things a little more difficult in terms of organizing. But I guess everything in life is about passion. If you are passionate about your children and passionate about your profession, you'll find a way to make it work. Of course I'm very unhappy every time I have to leave my children. But I probably am a more rounded person. I am a better person because I have had children; it drastically changed my personality. I suddenly started to see the world as a whole. And that also was when I started to do more extensive benefit projects. On the other hand, I know that without music, without the arts, without this connection to the audience and to great masterpieces, I wouldn't really be a fulfilled mom. I can't really think of being 365 days at home; that wouldn't have been it for me, either. So I guess it's just trying to meet with everybody's needs and not forget my own.

It's just wonderful, and I feel very privileged that somehow it seems to work for my children and it seems to work for me, too.

Laurie: Do they play instruments as well?

Anne-Sophie: Yes, my son plays the piano. Music is, of course, a natural part of our daily life. My son is very much into sports. And my daughter loves ballet, for over 11 years, and she also does modern (dance), so she is the artsy part. She also plays the flute and is in choir. So yes, they do play instruments, but it's not really their great life dream, which is okay.

Laurie: My children didn't want to play the violin...

Anne-Sophie: I just remember my son, when he took up the violin. At first, when he was five or six he wanted to study violin. After a few minutes -- I mean they gave up so fast, it was incredible -- he said, "But mama why does it sound so much better when you play?" I tried to explain, listen, I've been playing for 40 years! But the prospect of having to play 40 years... (she laughs)

Laurie: Several of my readers wanted to know about your beautiful dresses...

Anne-Sophie: Oh holy cow!

Laurie: They love your elegant look on stage, and they wondered, where does she get those beautiful dresses, how does she pick them out?

Anne-Sophie: Actually that's no big deal, I've gone the the same designer since I was 17 years old, and basically my dresses are all the same, just different colors, it's all the same style. It's comfortable, and it works, I don't have to think about it, I almost don't have to try them on. It's like a uniform. Sometimes I think it's like a plumber's uniform. (laughing) I mean, it looks probably a little nicer. Once I get into them, I'm kind of in the mood, I know it really does help me, to look good.

Laurie: Who is your designer?

Anne-Sophie: It's John Galliano, at Dior in Paris.

Laurie: One more question...the violinists on are very concerned about shoulder rests....

Anne-Sophie: This is a very interesting, and almost crucial moment in life, when you decide with what shoulder rest, or if at all. I remember I went through a phase of almost seven or eight years. First of all, when I started at five and a half, I was still growing, and therefore I frequently changed shoulder rests. I started with the Menuhin thing, and somehow it wasn't comfortable. A few years later I started to use a little pillow, which felt way more comfortable -- I didn't like the metal thing on the violin. But then when I was 11 or 12 and had nearly reached my final height, (the pillow) felt uncomfortable. So I changed from a relatively high pillow to a low rubber thing, which was extremely uncomfortable but the height was good. From that very uncomfortable but otherwise comfortable set-up, I went to a piece of deer leather, deerskin, because I needed something in between the clothing and the violin because the violin didn't feel secure. So the deerskin was kind of giving traction to the shoulder and violin. And then, when I started to play with Karajan, around that time, I discovered that playing without anything was actually the ideal solution. Then the next step was playing with sleeveless dresses -- that gave the ideal traction. So it took me about seven or eight years to finally settle down and find the solution. But there is no real rule one can apply, because it all depends on the neck length and the position of your shoulder.

Most important is that you don't squeeze your shoulder up, that you don't pressure your chin down, because you'll get terrible muscle pains in your neck area. Basically the instrument has to just lie there and you put your head on the chinrest and that's it. There's no force involved. According to the particular needs of the body, everyone has to play as relaxed as you can.

Laurie: When you're talking about all this you sound like a teacher. Do you teach?

Anne-Sophie: I used to teach at the Royal Academy of Music for a while when I was very young, and I'm teaching the scholars of my foundation, the Anne-Sophie Mutter Circle of Friends Foundation, now. I'm always grateful for intelligent, interesting string players applying for scholarship or just sending their tape. We have a number of artists we are working with. We have a double bass player, Roman Patkoló, I tell you, he's the Paganini, it's breathtaking. He has all these great composers writing for him. Andre Previn wrote him a double concerto which will be released on CD next year, and Penderecki's writing for him -- this is exciting stuff. My foundation is giving commissions for this repertoire.

I think that's rather exciting, to do something for music history.


October 10, 2008 at 09:37 PM · Great interview, Laurie.

Anne-Sophie said: "..we were discussing Bach solo sonatas. He was working on it and he wanted to know if I could think of a reference recording, and I mentioned the name of Nathan Milstein. He was probably 15 years old, and he had never heard of of him. I'm rather saddened and shocked to see that this goes across the border, it's no matter which country you are, there's a generation after me which is not aware of the grand masters of the last century; that's extremely disturbing. It's kind of a common disease of the young generation, who seems to think that whatever is out there as a new recording is the ultimate truth."

The big names of the past do not perform any more in concerthalls, because the do not live any more, but the younger generation can easily get in contact with those big names of the past, even if they have not lived for long, because of Youtube.

I am sometimes shocked of the repertoireknowledge of the younger generation. They only know the well known violinconcerto's and the only "encores??" they know and can play are Partita's and Sonates of Bach or caprices of Paganini, which they play as encore after one of those well known violinconcerto's Bruch1, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn in e, etc. The only encore for violin/piano is now Ronde de Lutins of Bazzini.

The big names of the past played Ottokar Novacek Perpetuum Mobile:

Michael Rabin plays Novacek (WITH ORCHESTRA) Perpetuo Mobile

(2.22 minutes, recordholder till now)

Jascha Heifetz Plays Novacek (WITH ORCHESTRA)

NATHAN MILSTEIN - Novacek's 'Perpetuum Mobile

HENRYK SZERYNG- Novacek's 'Perpetuum Mobile

Just type ""Nathan Milstein Bach" in Youtube and here it is for younger generations:

Nathan Milstein plays Bach Chaconne (Part 1) (Ok we are limited to 10 mminutes so part1)

October 11, 2008 at 12:01 AM · It's true, the Internet makes it even easier to study the performing artists of the past.

October 11, 2008 at 01:27 PM · Very nice interview, thank you.

October 11, 2008 at 04:35 PM · Very nice interview.

But I thought that she had remarried and divorced since the death of her first husband.

October 11, 2008 at 06:04 PM · Indeed, Corwin. We didn't go into those details.

October 11, 2008 at 07:42 PM · thanks so much for asking my question on're the greatest!!!!!

October 11, 2008 at 09:23 PM · She did speak of Andre Previn as a great composer when she was talking about the Paganini bassist. Great husband, father not sure.

October 12, 2008 at 04:41 AM · Thanks for the interview, Laurie. It's always good to hear the perspective of a star and realize that she is a real person, too.

October 12, 2008 at 05:51 AM · Where she says the only person who can hold you up is the composer, what that means is when a composer can't hold you up, it's wide open except for what you impose on yourself.

When you can justify to yourself what you do, why does it matter what the composer would think? If he doesn't like it, he doesn't have to listen to it.

October 14, 2008 at 03:41 AM · Great interview, Laurie!

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