Anne-Sophie Mutter at San Francisco Symphony

Anne-Sophie Mutter brings schwing to symphony hall

When a great artist performs one gets to ask questions of interpretation and style and artistic integrity. Anne-Sophie Mutter had that in spades last Monday at S.F.’s Davies Symphony Hall, wowing the crowd in three Brahms violin sonatas and returning, after multiple standing ovations, for four encores.

Spilling out of her tight trademark dress, she appeared daisy fresh but dead serious. Her long-time accompanist Lambert Orkis began playing as soon as he sat down, and a surprised audience quickly stifled its rustles. This disregard for the listeners was compounded by Mutter’s interpretation, which was so soft that many in the audience must have missed her nuances.

But lack of regard was hardly the point–we were being treated to a very private moment, a hushed idiosyncratic approach to Brahms which was direct, personal, and reflected the integrity of her vision. And the audience lapped it up!

Anne-Sophie MutterBut the power of a private vision can have casualties: Orkis was so careful to play under the violin, hunching over the keys as if to physically mute them, that something was lost. Brahms, himself a first rate pianist, wrote the sonatas as equal partnerships for himself and his good friend Joseph Joachim, a violinist, composer, and conductor. Chords were meant to storm against the sustained lyricism of the violin, phrase returning phrase in romantic dialogue.

Carl Johnson, my long-time musical mentor, wrote me his thoughts on this question, along with a CD of Jascha Heifetz playing Brahms with the young William Kapell on piano.

“So here’s a version of Brahms’ Third Sonata for violin AND PIANO in which the pianist is very much a presence–and what a difference it makes! The drive and the energy–the dialogue between more nearly equal partners—all this is immediate, and it sweeps one along… The slow movement is no adagio, I’ll grant. No nostalgic song here. This is a passionate lament, and I am moved by it…”

And yet Mutter’s version was certainly deeply felt. Her hesitant bowing, trembling on the edge of breaking with softness, was very compelling. And her rich low notes and arching phrases revealed her mature knowledge of Brahms’ lyrical genius.

She opened with his Sonata #2 in A major, displaying a youthful simplicity. The end of the slow middle movement was gorgeous, inspiring spontaneous applause from the audience.

They moved into the Sonata #1 in G major with more balance, phrases flowing between instruments. Mutter moves from extreme pianissimo into urgent bowing, with fat low notes retreating to end on softly vulnerable double stops.

The popular Sonata #3 in D minor was more vibrant, but still too restrained. And Mutter’s dead-on pitches miss the point of Brahms’ nostalgic gypsy treatment.

This was apparent in her encores, where she showed incredible technique in three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, No. 7, 1 and 2. She was breathtaking in the runs, with a crisp, icy delivery that brought a roar from the audience. But without the slides and scoops of a Hungarian Gypsy she turned deep emotion into technical virtuosity, a display of bling over schmaltz.

Actually, I’m OK with bling. Particularly in that dress.

Her final encore, Brahms’ immortal “Lullaby,” was teasingly slow and achingly sweet. And so we drifted out, dreaming.

—Adam Broner

Originally published in the Piedmont Post