Mirror, mirror on the wall/Am I still most glamorous of them all?
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/02/2017 - & March 26 (San Francisco), 29 (Chicago), 31 (Kansas City), April 4 (Tallahassee), 6 (Naples, FL), 8 (Washington), 2017
Sebastian Currier: Clockwork
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major, K. 526
Ottorino Respighi: Sonata for Violin and Piano in B Minor
Camille Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Op. 28
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Lambert Orkis (piano)
A.-S. Mutter, L. Orkis (© )
This season, Anne-Sophie Mutter’s American tour coincides with the 40th Anniversary of her international debut. Yes, it seems like only yesterday that this uncommonly beautiful and talented young lady appeared with the New York Philharmonic in, if my memory is correct, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Well, if anything, the glamour is still there so why don’t we start with that: she wore her trademark strapless gown, this time canary-yellow and that gown stayed with her throughout the recital. Clearly, our artist doesn’t share the prevalent current belief that it is the duty of a female performer to change her concert attire at least once during the performance. Her on-stage partner, the excellent pianist Lambert Orkis, also seemed a bit of a throwback: instead of an ubiquitous Mao jacket and/or black shirt worn out sans tie, so much preferred these days by all the so-called cool looking musicians, he opted for the formal concert attire: a white tie. Good for him! As it has been Ms. Mutter’s everlasting desire, there was no music stand on stage: as usual, she performed all the works on the program from memory, even those that fall in the category of chamber music. As we perhaps know, there is an unwritten tradition among instrumentalists that in deference to their partner at the piano, who rarely has a chance to memorize all the scores that he is expected to perform with a variety of instrumentalists or singers, in some forms of music such as sonatas the “so called soloist” decides to perform with the score even if their part is memorized. That little gesture has the purpose to show the audience that in such repertory their pianist and they are equal. Well, Ms. Mutter has always thought otherwise; thus one has the right to ask a question: if Mr. Orkis can tolerate that little undemocratic attitude why shouldn’t this reviewer? Perhaps because even in the program two works were listed as “violin sonatas”, with convenient omission of piano existence. As I often remark in my reviews: someone has to notice those things and it just happens that I am that someone... Fortunately, Mr. Orkis is always his own man and more often than not he commands this listener’s attention to a higher degree than the “soloist-in-question”.
Over the years, Ms. Mutter has tirelessly championed music of contemporary composers and many of them have dedicated their compositions to her, thus enriching the modern repertory for everyone. For that alone she should have our gratitude, for it is because of these commissions and the admiration of composers today are we richer with several major works by Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Previn, Rihm, Dutilleux or Gubaidulina, just to name a few. This time she opened her recital with a work by Sebastian Currier, Clockwork (1989), who was with us in the audience to receive warm and deserved applause from both performers and audience. Though being trained by such masters of “listener-unfriendly music” as Milton Babbitt, Mr. Currier own scores belie that tradition and his Clockwork is an absorbing, well-constructed and eminently listenable work. His own, wry description declares that this title could be applied to almost any composition, because “music is constructed of an intricate superimposition of elements” (thus a hint for Mr. Currier: perhaps his next work should be just called Clockwork No. 12 or Clockwork No. 43; It would for sure save a lot of time searching for a unused title!). The work is in four uninterrupted parts where the more temperamental movements are separated by a section called Lifeless. The first one Turbulent is indeed agitated, motoric, aggressive, angular and disturbed: there the piano seems to be the dominating force, and Mr. Orkis enthusiastically assumed the leading role. In this section, if one has to remain within the “realm of clockwork”, I had an impression of dealing with the anger of a clockmaker whose device went berserk, sort of modern day take on the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who can’t control any longer all the broken springs and dismantled gears. Searching is a long soliloquy of the violin moving slowly to an unreachable destination. Separate high pitch notes of the piano could evoke either the dying movement of the clock mechanism or amplified rain drops or a growing storm. Or something... Then there is another Lifeless moment where we hear the movement of a music-box (or so it sounds). Then the ticking of our imaginary clock starts to get louder and louder and we are transported into the Restless part, which again is unquiet, edgy, impatient, and sounds like an impressive toccata for piano: I am not sure Ms. Mutter was happy when the attention was diverted from her. And then it all dies away, and we are back into the slow ticking of motionlessness, where the music disappears into nothingness. Mr. Currier achieved success in creating a score where its 18 minute length for once didn’t overstay the listeners welcome or attention. I also doubt he could ask for a better performer of the difficult piano part.
The Mozart Sonata in A Major that followed is another showcase for the pianist and the aforementioned absence of the music stand further exemplified the absurdity of the situation in which one instrumentalist looks and acts as a soloist. Of the last of the three great “last sonatas” for piano and violin, the one in A Major is conceivably the most audacious and original. It elevates the violin to be the piano’s equal partner and offers both instruments true virtuoso solos; it introduces its first theme unlike any to my knowledge and the only comparison that comes to mind is the Gigue in G-Major K. 574 for piano solo, with a similar 6/8 time signature and an equally ambiguous rhythmic opening. This sonata confronts both of the performers, but especially the piano, with the virtuosity that can be found only in the most demanding segments of some of the piano concertos. Its last movement Prestois a rare example of moto perpetuo with scant moments of breathing space given to either instrument. Mr. Orkis demonstrated a wonderful command of style and instrumental perfection: his evenness of touch, crystalline articulation in the fast notes and faultless phrasing was almost matched by our alleged soloist. In moments like that I do invariably regret that this major artist appears in New York only as a foil for Ms. Mutter who, I imagine, must recognize his incredible qualities for they’ve been together on stage for some three decades. It is about time someone finally invited him for an appearance in a solo recital or as a soloist with an orchestra. I would not mind either hearing him as a chamber music player as I fondly recall his old trio recordings.
Composed in 1917 and to this day relatively rarely performed, the formidable Sonata in B-minor for Violin and Pianoby Respighi was a welcome alternative to the overplayed, though still invaluable works of Franck, Fauré or Strauss. This three movement sonata, the only one that Respighi composed, is a brooding, melancholic and rhapsodic work: though there is a recurring motif which clearly appears in the outer movements, the Respighi score seems much more alternately free and constricted than the sonata by Franck, to which some commentators attempt comparison. The climate of the work reminds me also of another post-romantic composer (Korngold) with its arching, impassioned melodic lines. Having compared the performance we heard at Carnegie Hall with their recording from some 17 years back, I found the later version to be much more convincing, more ardent, ecstatic and rapturous: this was by far the best vehicle for the lush, deep and rich sound of Ms. Mutter’s violin. One must not overlook the fact that regardless of what one thinks about Ms. Mutter’s interpretations or musical personality, there seems today no one today who can match her sound production or for that matter her bow-arm. Here, she is still in a class by herself! Words of praise have to be bestowed again on Mr. Orkis for his assertive partnership and formidable keyboard command. His stage manner indicates often enough that on stage at least – if not necessary on billboards or program booklets – he feels Ms. Mutter’s equal. He is also about the best page-turner for himself I have ever witnessed, but we don’t usually judge pianists on that basis alone.
It was almost a letdown after the drenching experience of the Respighi Sonata to venture back to the realms of pure virtuosity and the final work on the program, Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. Here, our virtuoso couldn’t help being a red-blooded virtuoso and dispatched all the difficulties of the score without much sweat and with all required elegance. The matter of musical taste appeared however in the first of the encores Tchaikovsky’s Melody op. 42 No. 3 (as arranged by Heifetz). I deeply regret that our soloist didn’t acquaint herself with either of The Masters recordings of that work, where the key to Mr. Heifetz’s performance was simplicity. Whereas he’d hum or murmur this lovely tune, Ms. Mutter hammed it up and made it into something bigger than it needed to be: it was, as it often is, “all about Annie”. But she redeemed herself nicely in the second encore, the Jamaican Rumba, where both she and Mr. Orkis felt perfectly at home, had fun playing and sent their audience home with a smile.
As for the answer to the question asked in title to the review the answer is: Absolutely YES.