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Laurie Niles

Concert Review: Mutter-Bashmet-Harrell Trio in Orange County

November 11, 2010 at 10:44 PM

Take three superstars, German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, American cellist Lynn Harrell and Russian violist Yuri Bashmet, and place them in a hall in California that seats more than 1,700 – that's with 30 chairs added to accommodate the over-capacity crowd at Orange County's Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Anne-Sophie Mutter
Anne-Sophie Mutter. Photo courtesy the artist.

Can a classical event get any bigger?

Yet this performance was a study in intimacy, the repertoire being Ludwig van Beethoven's early trios, music which leans more toward Beethoven's elegant classical side than his Romantic. The three artists played these trios in Vancouver Tuesday, and tonight they will play in Morelia, Mexico, before playing the program at Avery Fisher Hall in New York on Nov. 14.

On one hand, I longed to hear this music performed in small venue, like a tiny church chapel. Such a small ensemble needs a quiet backdrop– here in towering hall with its curvaceous balconies, with so many people, it's a tall requirement. But on the other hand, what a crowd, what energy! Young people sat everywhere, and judging from the applause between nearly every movement, a good many newcomers attended.

As this three embarked on their journey, starting with the String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3, I couldn't help wondering how this was going to come off, an entire concert of these rather exposed, allings works. To my initial thinking, a string trio is a quartet minus one -- a string quartet at 75 percent!

And of course, they won me over. I'd never seen Mutter live in concert, and she certainly brings the entire package, from her polished appearance to her fearless and arrow-direct playing. Known for her sleeveless Dior concert gowns, Mutter showed her impeccable fashion taste as always, with a bright orange, sparkling, spaghettiap blouse, black pants and high heals. (Logistics point toward wearing pants for seated chamber music playing.) Her partners wore all-black.

I enjoyed studying the musical personalities of each these three players, but to me, it also put on display the dynamic of these three instruments working together.

It took them some time to warm up in this literally very-cold hall, but by the third-movement Scherzo of the first piece, the energy was flowing, and the fourth-movement Presto showed off their precision and ability to execute very fast runs in sync.

Next was the Serenade in D, Op. 8, with a nice pizzicato ending in the Menuetto. Harrell's little smile at his closing strum causing the audience to giggle in sympathy with this cute ending. Harrell, in fact, seemed to be the glue, sitting in the middle of this small ensemble and keeping it together. It was in the highly changeable "Adagio-Scherzo-Allegro molto" movement that I could see almost a casting call for these three instruments: the aggressive violin at the fore, the cello as the go-between and diplomat, and the viola in a supporting role – even more the supporting role for the lack of a second violin. Of course this order is not always the case; there were solos all around throughout the night, but this movement threw into relief those instrumental stereotypes.

By now, our trio seemed to be having fun. Mutter is always doing something with the moment, one never gets the sense she is on auto-pilot because she seems to invent each moment as it comes along. Whether you agree with what she may make of it or not, it is compelling and generous. Harrell had a wonderful "way up there" on the fingerboard solo in the "Allegretto alla polacca," so perfect and elegant that I wanted to break out with hoots and applause, as in a jazz jam session. As the atmosphere relaxed, it was fun just reading the music on Harrell's face.

In the last movement of the Serenade there was much elegance all around. Mutter has many tools in her arsenal – she has the ability to turn on a dime and make virtually any sound she wants on the fiddle, flattening the tone with no vibrato, or making a ghosty whisper. Appropriate for early Beethoven? I'll leave that to the violin police. Bashmet plays so nimbly on the viola – an instrument not known as a nimble and easy partner. He makes it look easy.

After intermission came the String Trio in E-flat major, Op. 3. Here I noticed Mutter's muscle, speed, accuracy and elastic fingers. She does pounce, she falls forward, and she makes her collaborators catch up, but frankly it's rather exciting. No stagnation here. Each one of these musicians is a well-oiled machine, and part of the fun is that they can keep up, or they can slow it all to flat stillness, or they can slam on the breaks and dive back in.

I enjoyed the Andante movement of this Trio – how fun this sounded to play, like the innerworkings of a complex clock mechanism. The Menuetto-Trio also required some mean counting, fast pizzicato in the cello, constant slurred noodling in the viola, an overriding melody in the violin. So much packed into this music with just three instruments – it's a miracle it all fits. What music.

And at the end, a fiendishly fast finale: maniacal string crossings and double stops, a frenzy! And after the end, a standing ovation -- as much for what each of these artists are as for what they just did.

From bill platt
Posted on November 11, 2010 at 11:13 PM

lucky duck.


From Janis Cortese
Posted on November 11, 2010 at 11:47 PM


*bangs head repeatedly on tabletop*

From Anne Horvath
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 1:25 AM

I just ran across this:


Violin police???


From Michael Divino
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 4:24 AM

 I am seeing her on Saturday playing the Brahms Sonatas in DC.  My ticket was only $10 too!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 4:28 AM

That concert must have been wonderful with those performers.  I just discovered Yuri Bashmet as a virtuoso violist, and Anne-Sophie Mutter was just declared Musical America's Musician of the Year by Strings Magazine.

From Janis Cortese
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 5:41 AM

Bashmet is incredible.  His viola sounds like an old Age of Sail sailing ship that learned how to sing, with a little Lauren Bacall mixed in.  Heaven.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on November 12, 2010 at 6:31 PM

OK, I'll sing the praises of the cellist!  Lynn Harrell often spends a good part of the summer here at the local chamber music festival, and he's one of my favorites.  He gives the impression of absolutely loving what he's doing, and plays with wonderful presence and attention, even when the cello part is more, shall we say, accompaniment.  I've never seen him look like he's just phoning it in, something I can't say about a few others.  This sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime concert.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 16, 2010 at 11:14 AM

I found this review of the trio performance in the NY Tmes. .  The reviewer noted that this grouping of 3 instruments is not common in the literature and that Beethoven abandoned it for the string quartet later in his career.  The reviewer also felt that the contributions of the three players were not well balanced.  He felt that Anne-Sophie Mutter dominated the ensemble and felt that Bashmet, the violist, should have been heard more.

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