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When the Secular Becomes Divine

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
11/18/2010 -  & November 19, 20, 23, 2010
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concertos No. 3 in G Major, K. 216 (Cadenzas by Sam Franko), No. 1 in B-flat Major, K. 207 (Cadenzas by Hans Sitt), and No. 5 in A Major (“Turkish”), K. 219 (Cadenzas by Joseph Joachim, new version by Ossip Schnirlin)
Wolfgang Rihm: Leichtes Spiel: Ein Sommerstück(World Premiere)

Anne-Sophie Mutter (Mozart conductor/Violin)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Francis (Conductor)

In his book God Is Not Great, after almost 300 pages of fierce, highly documented scholarship, Christopher Hitchens sums up his thesis that science, biology, history, philosophy, logic, rationality, intellect, anthropology and every discipline in the world proves that there can be no Higher Spirit, and certainly no God.

Then, almost sheepishly, Hitchens has another thought. Perhaps, just perhaps, he says in parentheses, the existence of Mozart could prove him wrong.

After Anne-Sophie Mutter’s almost-all-Mozart evening, one need not be sheepish in whispering about the supernatural, though I for one was not totally anticipating a great evening. Ms. Mutter frequently devotes whole recitals to a single composer–Brahms or Bach, for example. And while one never doubts her great virtuosity, she can often play with self-indulgence that borders on the eccentric.

That was never true with her three Mozart concerti last night, where she also led the Philharmonic. (Her conducting motions were a bit ungainly, but it isn’t easy balancing a Strad and an orchestra.) Her tempos were often swifter than others, but after the opening orchestral measures, the richness, the glory, the soaring radiance of Ms. Mutter’s violin overcame any marginal doubts.

All three violin concerti were written when Mozart was 19, but the differences between the First and final Fifth were very wide. For that B-flat Concerto, Ms. Mutter turned it into two movements of brilliant violin exercises. This was Mozart the showoff, but Ms. Mutter’s technique now after more than three decades of playing (she is only 45), so satisfying and confident that one doesn’t think of it as virtuosity, but simply joyful playing. Ms. Mutter finally deftly conducted the introduction to the Adagio movement with the modesty of a soprano operatic aria, and her violin did the rest.

The Third Violin Concerto had a vibrancy and rhythmic push which only accentuated the beauty of the playing. But I was particularly taken with the cadenzas, written by late American conductor Sam Franko. While frequently performed, I had never heard them played with such élan, such bravura, such a sense that they could have been composed by Paganini himself. Yet once again, one never had to think of them as cadenzas. Ms. Mutter played with such incisiveness that they seemed a most integral part of the work.

For the Fifth Concerto, misnamed the “Turkish”, instead of the “Gypsy”, Ms. Mutter had the two minutes which were unforgettable. All three concerti are wonderful as violin works. But in the second half of the Adagio, the music become so serene, that one thought of the G Minor Symphony or even parts of the Requiem. They were not the work of a 19-year-old, but the imagination of a composer in his last years. Ms. Mutter never needed to press the issue. The combination of these lines, against the passing dissonances in the orchestra turned them into virtually a visionary Mozart.

The one non-Mozart was a world premiere by that most prolific composer, Wolfgang Rihm. The German composer has written so much, and for so many genres, with styles ranging from the Boulez/Darmstadt School to Morton Feldman to influences from Bruckner to Miles Davis, that one doesn’t quite know what his next work will bring. If only American orchestras would play more of him, we could judge more.

In this case, we had hints of the music. Mr. Rihm had written it especially for Anne-Sophie Mutter (hmm, lyrical, rich in violin voice), the orchestration was a sparse pair of flutes, oboes, horns with strings (aha, the Mozart connection), and the name–Light Game: A Summer Piece–would be more like a divertimento than a concerto.

Add to this, Mr. Rihm’s explanation that virtually every note was given a precise instruction. E.g. The opening would be “A bit sustained, not too slow, bit by bit more scurrying”. With such precision, Ms. Mutter would have to surrender conductorial chores to Michael Francis in his own NY Phil debut.

The result was an absolutely marvelous show piece. It was certainly not as light or summery as its title, but it fit the artistry and verisimilitude of Ms. Mutter hand in glove. In other words, Mr. Rihm wrote no violin tricks here, no harmonics, not even a pizzicato until the very end (more on that later). We did hear violin playing which soared higher and higher, with nary a rest for the soloist for the entire 17 minutes. And we did have changes of mood which, while not abrupt, were always surprising.

Most of the piece was based on a three-note theme, a kind of distended upside-down V-shape, commencing with the soloist, then with the orchestra playing variations on that in different rhythms, while Ms. Mutter played the most radiant melodies above that. The word “melodies” makes it sound fairly conservative, but these were hardly hummable. Theydid seem to be composed for the sheer beauty of the violin sound, and here Mr. Rihm obviously knows his devotee.

The Mozart feeling was in more than the orchestration. I was thinking of Elliott Carter’s wonderful appreciation of Mozart’s sudden changes while preserving the unity of the whole. The Light Game made those changes, yet seemed all of one texture.

The other Mozart homage (at least to my ears) is that after non-stop glorious playing, Mr. Rihm’s work ended with a single pizzicato note from the soloist and two very quiet measures from the orchestra. And this climactic anti-climax was exactly how Mozart ended both the Third and Fifth violin concerti of the night.

In retrospect, the quartet of works woud hardly have transformed Christopher Hitchens into a True Believer in literal Spiritual Divinity. Yet, had he been present, I feel confident he would have felt that Messrs Mozart and Mutter transformed our human existence into a spirited, divine life experience.

Harry Rolnick



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