interview with Anne-Sophie Mutter: Brahms Sonatas

November 28, 2010, 7:24 PM ·

When I caught up with Anne-Sophie Mutter earlier this month in Orange County, California, she was in the midst of so many projects that I had to write them on a piece of paper to keep track: a series of Beethoven trio concerts with Lynn Harrell and Yuri Bashmet; the release of the complete Brahms Sonatas on CD and on DVD with Lambert Orkis; and a New York Philharmonic residency in which she is playing premieres of works by contemporary composers this fall and next spring.

Anne-Sophie Mutter
Photo © Harald Hoffman / DG

We spoke about her more-than-20-year collaboration with pianist Lambert Orkis, the new pieces she will play in New York, and the Anne-Sophie Mutter Circle of Friends Foundation for young soloists.

Anne-Sophie and Orkis started their collaboration in Carnegie Hall in December of 1988. "We've covered an enormous amount of repertoire together – not all of it is recorded," she said.

"We have totally different backgrounds," Anne-Sophie said. "Lambert Orkis comes very much from the background of contemporary music and of historic practice of performing, which is not at all my upbringing – though it has rubbed off quite a bit on my understanding of Beethoven and Mozart, for example, and Bach, of course. So we are not naturally one mind! But we have great respect for each other, obviously."

"We are both passionate rehearsers, and on the other hand, passionately un-doing things during the concert. We try to push each other to the edge. Not every evening, but there are moments when we drive it to the wall, just because the music is intensely speaking at that particular moment and the dialogue is always fresh," Anne-Sophie said. "It's like if you talk to your husband: you pretty much know where his thinking is going. But still, you would hope that a dialogue is always something which also is surprising and enriching. That's what we have achieved over the years."

"We have a musical life apart from each other, which is very helpful," Anne-Sophie said. "We bring our experiences with contemporary music, with world premieres, with his trio, and with his recording of Beethoven Sonatas, for example, on historic instruments. We bring that together, and shake and bake, and let it fly."

The moment felt right to re-record the Brahms. "I have played the Brahms Sonatas a lot over the years, sometimes as a cycle, sometimes as single pieces in a mixed recital, and we felt that we had reached a new understanding, a very personal viewpoint, different from my very first recording with (pianist) Alexis Weissenberg from the early '80s. It was ready, it was ripe to be harvested."

Though they are being released at the same time, the CD and DVD were recorded separately.

"The DVD is pretty different from the CD," Anne-Sophie said. "They were all produced in the same time frame. The CD is not a studio performance, but a performance without audience. On a rainy morning, we ran through the G major and nailed it. There was a wonderful atmosphere that morning for that particularly dark and very private piece. I think that the G major sonata that is captured on the CD could never have been that private, that personal, that whispering – with an audience present. I particularly like the recording of the G major – and I don't easily say that.

"The performance with audience (for the DVD) is simply different," she said. "We all like to play for an audience more than playing for the microphone. Standing in front of the microphone, you just have to forget the purpose of you being there, because it's going to hinder you very much."

Communication works differently in the presence of an audience, she said.

"Psychologically, there is a huge difference between an empty, silent room, and a room silent, with attentive, listening people," Anne-Sophie said. "It's a totally different atmosphere, and in that atmosphere wonderful things can happen.

Does she have a favorite of the three sonatas?

"The G major," she said. "There's such a wonderful history between Clara and Johannes, and the piece itself is really a jewel. It's wonderfully constructed, and so thoughtful, and personal."

The G major sonata, though it does not officially bear a dedication to Clara Schumann, was written following the death of one of Clara's children. Brahms uses one of her favorite tunes, from "Regenlied," (rain song) which serves as a theme through three movements.

"There are letters going back and forth, where Clara is very much moved by the thought that Brahms would even pick one of her favorite songs as a theme," Anne-Sophie said.

While in New York earlier this month, Anne-Sophie began a residence with the New York Philharmonic, with a world premiere performance of Wolfgang Rihm's "Lichtes Spiel", for solo violin with Mozart-sized orchestra. It is the second piece Rihm has written for Anne-Sophie; "twenty years ago he wrote me a piece called Time Chant. He's very unique, I wouldn't know who to compare him with, you have to listen to his very unique style of writing."

Speaking about it before the performance," Anne-Sophie said that "so far, (Lichtes Spiel) seems to be what he says it is, a walk on a sunny day, something very not a heart-wrenchingly dark-mooded piece. It's like along aria with a very delicately orchestrated, small group of players around – two horns in F, two oboes and two flutes. "

Anne-Sophie will return in the spring to the New York Philharmonic for the New York premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina's In Tempus Praesens, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which was written several years ago for Anne-Sophie.

"That piece is still under exclusivity, although it's soon over and Gidon Kremer is going to play In Tempus Praesens next February in my hometown, Munich," Anne-Sophie said. "I'm very glad that I had a relatively long period with it, and I was able to travel the world with it and introduce it to places like Japan, where it was received very enthusiastically."

She also will perform the world premiere of Sebastian Currier's 'Time Machines'.

"This piece has been on my desk for quite a while and just never quite found the right moment to appear, but it will in the spring of next year," Anne-Sophie said. "There are seven movements: there is compressed time, large time, hurried time...It's a very interesting concept, how he tries to put that into a rhythmical concept, and that is really fiendishly difficult. I'm still working on it, in my spare hours."

A piece that remains in the works for a world premiere in the spring in New York is Wolfgang Rihm's "Elf and the Bear," a piece commissioned by Anne-Sophie's foundation, for her and for bassist Roman Patkoló. Who is the elf and who is the bear? "That's the question!" Anne-Sophie said. Patkoló is a current recipient of one of the Mutter foundation scholarships, and "I'm in total awe of his talent," Anne-Sophie said. "He's not just a great technician but also a thorough, grounded, very knowledgeable musician."

And speaking of her foundation, "I'm always looking for greatly talented students for my foundation," Anne-Sophie said. Young artists between the ages of 16 and 22 are eligible to apply to be "scholars" by sending a DVD, CV, letters of is all the information about it.

Anne-Sophie began the foundation in Munich, Germany, in 1997, to help young soloists find the proper instruction, instruments, performance opportunities and more.

"I wanted to have the perfect foundation, the perfect tool for young string players," Anne-Sophie said. Because the foundation is run by a musician, "the understanding of what a young string player needs is very high, out of my own experience. We also give commissions, not only for double bass but also for chamber ensemble, and we buy instruments, pay for tutoring. (Some of the scholars) are traveling with me. They are auditioning for conductors, playing for producers of CDs...there's basically nothing the foundation isn't providing. Depending on what every single person needs, from a driver's license to lectures in German or English, literature, scores, you name it. Rowing, mountain climbing, getting to know painters, I mean it's very varied, and most of the time it's really great fun."

Anne-Sophie came up with the idea for a foundation when she was a young artist, finding her way; specifically, when she faced the monumental task of procuring a fine instrument at the age of 16.

"It was Karajan who suggested that I should change my Nicola Gagliano to a Strad," Anne-Sophie said. "Back then I was kind of offended, my Gagliano's so beautiful! I never want to change it! But then, what do you know at that age? I got to know some of the great fiddles, and the next problem was, how on Earth was I going to finance that?"

Luckily, the politicians in her hometown in Germany had a commitment to culture, and they helped her to pre-finance the violin.

"That was an enormous help, but I still felt that one day I would build a foundation which would be absolutely perfect, where a musician would be the head of it, knowing what details around the life of a string player that one has to look into," Anne-Sophie said. "It was very clear to me that one day when I would eventually have more time, I would like to try something which would not be out of a specific region but really would embrace the world. So whoever needs help can knock on our door.

" She said she has enjoyed helping pair musicians with the proper instrument, though the final decision must be theirs. They have to match – like a marriage.

"Marriage with an instrument sometimes lasts longer!" she laughed. "But the good thing is you can put it back in the case and close the case, it's never talking back to you!"

She also helps scholars find the proper mentor. "Most of them are on a level where they don't need a day-to-day teacher but there they just need brainstorming, brain-picking..sometimes just sending them off to masterclasses and having a close look on their outcome after the masterclasses is enough. Sometimes very close relationships come about between these teachers and students, that's one of the main focuses, hooking them up with the right mentors. And then the next thing is to find a conductor who will take them under his wing. Not only necessarily to give a lot of concerts, but to grow musically. Christoph Eschenbach, for example, who is wonderful collaborator for my foundation because he is so open-minded towards the young generation and does chamber music with them and really serves as a mentor. That is something that is an important part of that equation."

And then, some scholars need non-musical things. "Just to get them out of their nutshell," she said. For example, one student was obsessed with playing and wanted to play from dawn to dusk. "I told him listen, playing an instrument is not about repeating. On your technical level, it's about understanding where a musical thought comes from and what it is part of, where it grows out, how it evolved. So you have to get away from the instrument! So what did I do? I took him mountain climbing in Austria and rowing on a lake. I just wanted to show him the beauty of Bruckner's landscape."

She also introduced him to a quote in German literature: "Before you go to bed in the evening, you have to ask yourself the question, do you live in order to write, or do you write in order to live?"

"For a musician it's very much that question: is it a calling or is it fortune and fame?" Anne-Sophie said.

Hint: if the answer is that you are doing it for the "fortune and fame," that's the wrong answer!



November 29, 2010 at 03:49 AM ·

That was a fine read!!  I've deeply admired her ever since I was a little boy....yet I've never been able to see her in a live concert.  I'm so jealous you had the opportunity to spend time with her one on one....what I wouldnt do for 5 minutes to pick her brain  =)

November 29, 2010 at 08:41 AM ·

Laurie - what a fantastic interview with an always fascinating performer.   Luckily I had the opportunity to hear her live with the New York Philharmonic in January 2000, think she was playing the "Time-Chant".  

Happy Holidays, and keep 'em comin!

November 29, 2010 at 11:19 AM ·

Intelligent, very humanistic and idealistic, v e r y  impressing !

With all my heart,

Prof.Michael GRUBE, violinsoloist

November 29, 2010 at 08:07 PM ·

 Hearing her do the Brahms sonatas live was like a glimpse into true paradise.  A performance never to be forgotten. 

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