Fiddles in the Middle
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerti Nos. 3 & 4; Sinfonia Concertante K364
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
Yuri Bashmet (viola)
The period instrument movement’s insistence on “authentic” performance practice for the presentation of older works of music to modern audiences is roughly analogous to forcing 21st century readers to absorb the works of Thackeray, Dickens or Dostoevsky in installments, waiting weeks or even months for the next chapters. Although perhaps admirable from a scholarly, scientific perspective, the imposition of rules and regulations which appear to recreate the sonic universe contemporary with the creation of a particular opus may be just a tad arbitrary and anal. The shrinking of orchestral forces and the use of instruments of a much lower volume level is, however, an understandable Hegelian reaction to the excesses of the middle years of the 20th century, when lush and plush “101 strings” types of ensembles ruled the planet. Even the greatest Mozartians of those overstuffed days, such as Walter or Krips, were in need of a severe reduction in cholesterol. The use of original 18th century hardware in tiny halls may be exceedingly dry, but a reasonable ultramodern alternative to this fundamentalism is the small chamber orchestra populated with up-to-date strings, winds and horns. Such an ensemble is the Camerata Salzburg, who brought their particular brand of musical détente to Carnegie Hall last evening, hedging their bets a bit by featuring a genuine superstar soloist. It was a compromise to make even Metternich proud.
I have had problems in the past with Anne-Sophie Mutter but these concerns melted away this night as she led an intelligent recital of middle brow, middle of the road, middle period Mozart. Her tone soared above the tiny back-up forces (at their largest, I counted a total of 25 players-approximately the same number as a typical violin section in a major modern orchestra) and she dazzled with her prodigious technical abilities. The orchestra performed in a unison style which created the illusion that there were actually quite a bit fewer participants on stage, the net effect one of highly competent chamber music, eloquently exposing the acoustical roots of the two concerti. This little band has no clarinets because Wolfgang had yet to rhapsodize about the new instrument (it was really Mozart who legitimized this colorful addition, but not for another five years or so after the newest work on this particular bill of fare). It was all gentler and less punishing than I had expected, Ms. Mutter even lathering her part with generous doses of vibrato. The Salzburghers play much more sensually when freed from their Calvinist conductor Roger Norrington and followed Ms. Mutter’s delicate but precise lead expertly. She is only just beginning to explore the possibility of someday conducting a larger orchestra and has still not mastered the art of keeping her composure, visibly petulant when her attempt to progress from one movement to another with only the slightest of pauses was trampled under the weight of a giant tide of phlegm from the audience.
Truth be told, I really attended this concert to hear Yuri Bashmet. I am a fan from acquaintance via CD and am also intrigued by his rock-star status in Eastern Europe. Mozart himself was a violist and helped to gain respectability for the misshapen violin with the funny clef. There have been very few famous virtuosi whose sole vehicle is this butt of nearly every orchestral joke (even that most famous of viola works, Harold in Italy, was written for a headliner violinist who just happened to acquire a special alto instrument and wished to exhibit his versatility) and every opportunity should be exercised to hear them and their extremely beautiful sonorous range. The Sinfonia Concertante is a more mature conception than the violin showcases and contains much more of the emotional meat which is the essence of Mozart at his best. From the outset, the gorgeous combination of Mr. Bashmet and Ms. Mutter playing in unison grabbed us all and would not let us go. This lovely blending alone was worth the price of admission for a sold out house. The trick here, so confidently engineered, was that these small forces could fill such a large hall with satisfying sound. Unlike a period instrument alternative, this highly skilled ensemble led by two such full-voiced soloists could reach the last row of the balcony as if they were a Mahlerian orchestra, substituting brilliant timbre for sheer bulk. The entire experience was toe-tapping and exceedingly pleasant; I wouldn’t want to make this style of performance a steady diet, but, once in a while, a low fat meal is the perfect antidote for too much Viennese pastry.
Frederick L. Kirshnit