Virtuosity Tempered by Finesse from Mutter and Orkis

United StatesUnited States Currier, Mozart, Respighi, Saint-Saëns: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Lambert Orkis (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances and San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 26.3.2017. (HS)

Sebastian CurrierClockwork
Mozart — Sonata in A major
Respighi — Sonata in B minor
Saint-SaënsIntroduction and Rondo Capriccioso

As violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis walked out on stage to take their introductory bows Sunday night at Davies Hall, they kept smiling and talking to each other. Or maybe they knew how good their music would be for the next two hours.

They opened with Clockwork (1989), a charming meditation on the pulse of time by Sebastian Currier, who is among Mutter’s go-to contemporary composers, and continued with a graceful performance of a late Mozart sonata. A broadly expressive tour of Respighi’s colorful and serious-minded Sonata in B minor preceded a romp through Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

It was the first go-round for a program they will play on their United States tour through April 8 at Symphony Center in Chicago, Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with stops in Kansas City and in Florida at Tallahassee and Naples. Already, all the pieces appear to be in place, the smiles at the beginning suggesting the players’ confidence. Repeated performances can only polish the sheen.

The highlight was the Respighi. It’s big-boned like the much more familiar Franck sonata, but it explores somewhat darker musical territory without losing this composer’s essential theatricality. Respighi wrote it shortly after he completed the large, orchestral Fountains of Rome, though lacking its dazzling orchestral colors. Nevertheless, Respighi’s sense of long-limbed melodic line, rising and falling as if breathing, came through clearly.

Mutter’s tone and clarity paid dividends here, shaving off excesses to let the violin’s sound flow without foaming. Throughout the concert Orkis, who has been performing recitals with Mutter since 1988, displayed a soft, velvety touch that was especially appealing.

One could wish for a bit more crispness and bite from the piano in the program’s finale, Saint-Saëns’ dazzling Introduction and Rondo. Without the colors and rhythms that make the original orchestral version so exciting, the ball was in Mutter’s court to increase the intensity, which she did, delivering one virtuosic flourish after another.

The first half’s conclusion, Mozart’s Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano, danced with light-footed finesse, even in the opening measures which can often sound more like a march. Orkis’ soft-edged approach helped, but it was Mutter’s subtle shifts of tonal color and dynamics that brought the piece to life. The Andante was especially beguiling—glassy and smooth—before giving way to the frolics and wispy rhythms of a Presto finale.

Having played Currier’s music regularly over the years, Mutter and Orkis clearly have absorbed his  language, which can range from delicate shimmers to gestures that feel like musical shrugs. If this performance felt tentative, what lingers in memory are softly pulsing piano chords and sporadic gestures by the violin, developing unexpectedly into long melodic gestures that reached ever higher and ever softer. It made a thoughtful if subdued opener, paying off in the contrast with Mozart’s overt expressiveness that followed.

For an encore, the duo brought the temperature down from the rambunctious Saint-Saëns with Heifitz’s transcription of Tchaikovsky’s sweet Melodie No.3.

Harvey Steiman

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