Mutter delivers unforgettable Sibelius with Danish National Orchestra

Thu Feb 12, 2015 at 12:10 pm
Anne-Sophie Mutter performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Tina Tahir/DG

Anne-Sophie Mutter performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Tina Tahir/DG

There is a substantial storehouse of music, written mostly from the late 18th through the early 20th century, that constitutes the substantial majority of symphony orchestra concerts. One reason the music is played so often is that so much of it is great, but that also tends to make symphonic concerts safe. There is a standard format—especially with visiting groups—of overture, concerto, then, after intermission, an “evening length” symphony.

Safe does not automatically mean bland or boring, but the pleasure of hearing a great work played well is predictable, and while ideally there should be a broad range of interpretive possibilities, in practice variations between performances are slight.

Then there are concerts like the one Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, with the visiting Danish National Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Cristian Macelaru, appearing with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter as part of her Perspectives series this season. Together, they played one of the great warhorses, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, and the performance was astonishing and impossibly sublime.

This was Mutter’s show all the way. There are many fine soloists in classical music, and everywhere one turns there are musicians with tremendous technique. Mutter is one of them. She has unsurpassed dexterity and articulation. More than a great violinist, though, she is a great artist, a virtuoso thinker about music with enormous expressivity.

Start with the opening bars: above the pianissimo tremolo in the orchestral strings, Mutter produced an eerie, glassy tone, sharp enough to draw blood. As the music opened up, so did she, rounding out her sound and filling it with light.

In the opening Allegro moderato there are two short cadenzas that show off the soloist and serve as transitions, then a final, big cadenza. Mutter played the fast runs in the second cadenza with such power, then the mournful phrase that follows with such desolation, that one could only laugh in amazement and cry with heartbreak at the same time.

Sound, speed, power, character, viscera, these were all her tools. She went from mellow to harsh through the space of individual sustained notes. After her tremendous run through the third cadenza, her playing took on an inhuman amount of weight, as if the bow was a shovel, clearing earth for a grave.

In the sad, wistful Adagio, she played una corda, keeping the music on the G string for as long as possible, her violin sounding like a viola. In the last, Allegro movement, she played with a disciplined freedom that had her phrases at odds with those of the orchestra, until they synchronized at key points. This was a performance that left one stunned in wonderment.

Macelaru and the Danish musicians were excellent accompanists. The conductor tends towards tempos slightly slower than the norm, which seemed perfect for Mutter. The orchestra played beautifully, especially when the music was at its quietest, and overall tended towards a darker sound than one usually hears. The low brass produced a great, warm rumble, like the pedals of an organ.

As an encore, Mutter played a Bach Sarabande, which she dedicated to the orchestra’s previous music director, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who passed away last June just a week after resigning his position because of illness. The spare simplicity of her playing revealed the sincere and profound effect of his death.

The rest of the concert, though not at that singular level, was well done. The orchestra opened with Valse Triste, and the combination of quiet playing, an almost funereal opening tempo, and carefully placed pizzicato phrases made the music more dolorous than triste, and so the cadential phrase that rises from the orchestral texture was unusually powerful.

The main course was Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4. Here, Macelaru’s tempos were less consistent, hanging phrases in place while stretches of the Poco Allegretto were lost in stasis. The overall shape was excellent—in the first movement, the initial woodwind chorale was nicely understated, setting the stage for the same music’s grand return in the brass. The overall impact of the symphony was rousing, the sense that the music enjoyed its own power. Orchestra and conductor dashed off the encore of Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture with the same élan.

Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Perspectives Series continues 8 p.m. April 14.

2 Responses to “Mutter delivers unforgettable Sibelius with Danish National Orchestra”

  1. Posted Feb 13, 2015 at 10:22 pm by Tom Frobischer

    Intonation issues with both the orchestra and soloist in the Sibelius concerto set my teeth on edge and precluded enjoyment, though I thought the orchestra rallied for the Nielsen. Perhaps in his response to Ms. Mutter’s performance, Mr. Grella was listening with ears befogged by hormones — not that anyone could blame him.

  2. Posted Feb 14, 2015 at 3:53 am by Bernie Montague

    to Tom Frobischer: It is being said that the American orchestras have a tendency to focus on technical perfection, e.g. ‘perfect’ intonation, while the European school is more prone to actual emotional music making and using intonation creatively also for expression. Could it be, your judgement of Mutter’s sublime performance had been overshadowed by such sophistic perceptional biases? I loved her sometimes almost “Hungarian” way of letting the fiddle sing, whisper, scream and moan.

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