Anne-Sophie Mutter Takes Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto By the Scruff of the Neck

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 7.5.2017. (CS)

Mussorgsky, arr. Rimsky-Korsakov – Prelude to Khovanshchina
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major Op.35
Shostakovich – Symphony No.15 in A major Op.141

I spent the few minutes before this concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Mark Elder at the Barbican reflecting on what might have influenced the programming.  What might make the Prelude to Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina a suitable opener to precede the well-known works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich which were to follow?  Other than that, all three composers are Russian, that the Prelude is near-contemporary with Tchaikovsky’s concerto, and that Shostakovich made his own edition of Khovanshchina for a film version of the opera in 1958, restoring some of the cuts made by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1883?

The performance itself left me none the wiser, but it was a palette-tingling amuse bouche prior to the two meaty courses to come.  The delicacy and coolness of the soli violas and woodwind as the sun rose over the Muscovy River – with piquant cock-crows from oboe and bassoon – flowered warmly with the entry of horns and timpani, and Elder’s flexible rubato created a strong sense of organic development and unfolding.  Subtle and eloquent – the pianissimo horn chords balanced languorously on the strings’ off-beat pizzicatos – the Prelude is an odd precursor to the violent historical tragedy which the opera presents, and it seemed over in the blink of an eye.

The ten double basses marshalled across the width of the Barbican stage were an impressive sight, though.  But, most of them were banished as the LSO reduced in size for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter.   The term ‘war horse’ is often used to describe this concerto, and Mutter was evidently determined to overcome the over-familiarisation that can result in hackneyed repetition.  And, while she’s been playing this work for more than 30 years, since her first performance with Karajan and the VPO in the Grosses Festspielhaus, the liner notes to her 2004 recording of the work indicate a desire to consider the concerto afresh.  Mutter remarks that ‘Performing contemporary music had added immeasurably to the way I play Tchaikovsky’s Concerto’ And, this was a performance of great freedom – Elder was ever-attentive in following his soloist’s subtle changes of tempo and mood – and wide-ranging colour.  But, it was also a performance in which too often power and assertiveness, and sometimes aggressive abrasiveness, pushed aside lyricism.

I’ve heard quite a few live performances of this concerto recently (Hadelich, Bell, Kuusisto) and enjoyed their diversity.  And, here there were moments of great beauty: for example, the stillness and the gleaming E-string gold which Mutter conjured for the second subject of the first movement (Elder kept everyone else firmly in the shadows).  Moreover, there were passages where skill serviced the music: the care and precision with which Mutter articulated the multiple-stopped episodes a strong case in point.  But, the first movement cadenza prioritised weight and speed over tone and phrasing – though it would be impossible not to admire Mutter’s flawless intonation and ringing harmonics.  Towards the close of the Allegro moderato the violinist pushed ahead of her accompanists and her impetuousness seemed to inspire the timpanist to deliver some mighty thwacks in the final cadence.

The woodwind were perfectly attuned, and tuned, at the opening of the Canzonetta though the horn’s nudges, which accompany the muted soloist’s theme, seemed overly forthright.  The tempo was on the slow side, and Mutter’s phrasing sometimes seemed rather matter-of-fact, as she withdrew the sound almost to niente at times, but she engaged expressively with the clarinet in the main theme’s reprise.  The Finale: Allegro vivacissimo began with a ‘gun-shot’, and I have to say that by the end of the movement I felt as if I’d been hurtled across a battlefield: ‘vivacious’ seemed to Mutter to indicate relentless haste, even brutality, rather than animation and sparkle.  There was some fine playing from the LSO: the woodwind were given free rein in expressive episodes and the violins delivered crisp, bright pizzicatos – especially notable at this breakneck pace.  But, Mutter’s tone was often harsh and there was little sense of Slavic joy.  The aggression flared up further towards the close and the soloist’s rejoinders to the orchestra were so fast and fierce as to be almost impossible to absorb and register.  The flashy fire excited the sell-out audience at the Barbican but did not move this listener’s soul.  At the close, I wondered if Mutter had any love left for this concerto.  She did offer a short encore – some unaccompanied Bach which was made shorter than the composer intentioned by Mutter’s sledge-hammer approach.

Elder and the LSO brought rather more refinement to their account of Shostakovich’s final symphony.  In most works by Shostakovich history never feels that far away, but here the political landscape of the past and present is complemented by a very personal and explicitly musical history: the work abounds in self-quotation and references to Beethoven, Rossini, Wagner and Glinka, among others.  Elder showed appreciation of the score’s signposts and enigmas, both of which are highlighted by the sparse textures, and in the Allegretto managed to ally passages of brittleness with those of warmth, and exuberant percussion with lightly dancing double basses.   The programme note at the first performance, deliberately obfuscating perhaps, explained that this movement depicts a toy shop at night, the toys all springing to life in their keeper’s absence; and, there was certainly a sense of capriciousness but also of an emotional distance born of regret at the futility of revolutionary endeavours which had failed to emulate the humble William Tell’s overthrow of tyranny.

The funereal brass at the opening of the Adagio-Largo had quite a nasal timbre, a striking colour to serve as a backdrop of Rebecca Gilliver’s deeply expressive cello solo – never has serialism sounded so seductive – which was silkily complemented by leader Carmine Lauri.   Gilliver’s sensitivity was matched by trombonist Peter Moore’s wonderful pianissimo.  It felt quite a jolt when we were whipped, segue, into the sardonic Scherzo in which the clatter and chatter of brass, horns and percussion was unsettlingly derisive.  It took a while for the chill of this Allegretto to be heated through, but Elder gradually injected more intensity as the contrapuntal arguments built unwaveringly towards the dark allusions to Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, which, according to the composer’s Testimony, is ‘not about Leningrad under siege’ but rather ‘about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off’.  The babbling xylophone and spare string chord were a fittingly bleak note on which to conclude.

Claire Seymour

2 thoughts on “Anne-Sophie Mutter Takes Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto By the Scruff of the Neck”

  1. I’m sure, Claire, this concert presents itself to you so as to put the soloist under the microscope – for the ‘lay’ casual yet enthusiastic concert goer, this was as delightful a masterclass in classical violin that I have seen for many years. I like attack in my soloist – and am somewhat mystified that it missed the mark and not delivered ‘Slavic Joy’ in the way you were looking for. Like skiing, the joy is in the mastering of the art, and for us in the audience, our joy is in the watching and appreciating the skill.
    [This comment has been edited]

    • Thank you for your comments, Geoff; the electric reception Mutter received confirms that there were many in the Hall who shared your view. And, in my review I do acknowledge that there were moments of ‘great beauty’ in Mutter’s account, and places where her skill – so astoundingly on show (as my guest observed, such virtuosity has to be seen to be believed) – served the music. And that, in the cadenza for example, ‘it would be impossible not to admire Mutter’s flawless intonation and ringing harmonics’. But, a review aims, inevitably, to be both an account which will inform the absent enthusiast (and remind those who were present) and also one which offers a personal evaluation: I simply like my Tchaikovsky less heavy and harsh. I was particularly perturbed by the breakneck and ‘dance-less’ Bach. My own view is that the mastering of the art comprises both technical and expressive elements, and I felt that Mutter did not conjure the ‘spirit’ or the ‘meaning’ of the music – whatever we mean by such terms! Of course, others will differ in their opinion. But, I have made note in my review of the audience’s general response, to show that not all shared my misgivings. I guess that ‘music criticism’ is a debate between different tastes, perspectives and experiences …


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