Michael Cookson Interviews Anne-Sophie Mutter, Manchester 2012

Michael Cookson Interviews Anne-Sophie Mutter, Manchester 2012

“After all these years I’m still rather fascinated by the violin and the remaining repertoire.”

“Bernstein was a pretty good composer but André is better.”

“The Schubert Fantasie in C major which I am playing tonight is the crown of chamber music repertoire… Seriously, it is the greatest piece ever written for violin and piano.”

Those are some of the many great quotes given to me by distinguished violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to interview Anne-Sophie in Manchester at the final stop of her European recital tour with pianist Lambert Orkis. I met Anne-Sophie in the lounge of a tired looking and extremely noisy Midland Hotel on the morning prior to her recital at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

Casually dressed in heels, skinny jeans and short leather jacket and looking much younger than her years she seemed remarkably fresh after her gruelling fourteen date tour. I was immediately struck by Anne-Sophie’s energy, sharpness and her innate business-like approach and yet she still appeared approachable and charming.

MC: You must be asked to play the same concertos over and over again. How do you possibly manage to keep your repertoire so fresh?

A-SM: If you look at my schedule for this year so far I have played quite a lot of different works. I gave the European première of Sebastian Currier’s Time Machines [Note: Time Machines is a seven movement concerto for violin and orchestra written for Anne-Sophie Mutter]. This workhas not been premièred in Britain but it has been played in Germany and also in Switzerland. I gave the world première in New York earlier on. [Note: The première of Time Machines was in June 2011 at the Avery Fisher Hall, New York] Then I did the Bruch Concerto, the Previn Trio, the Mendelssohn Trio No. 1, the Mozart Trio No. 2, the Previn Double Concerto – that’s the one for violin and viola – the Dvořák Concerto and Romance. As you will know, it is all major repertoire. In a week’s time I will play the Beethoven Concerto in Australia and a week from that in Paris I will play the Dvořák Concerto. So I’m always coming back from the new to the old repertoire. My repertoire is huge and I’m always learning things not only from contemporary music but from music from the past that I have not yet played.

MC: Would you say that you are in a position to be able to dictate to orchestral artistic directors what you wish to play?

A-SM: Well I’m not really dictating, Michael. I’m suggesting what is already in my repertoire and what I feel comfortable with artistically. Most of the time, because I do plan quite far ahead, I like to be ahead of the crowd, so to speak. So I still can pick and chose most of the time what repertoire I will play. When it comes down to contemporary music I’m rather more likely to dictate immediately, because if it’s something which needs to be done then I will not shy away from it, making sure I can really play well music that historically puts an audience off. This is because it shows them a new language. It’s a mirror of the time we live in. Playing contemporary music is something that I feel deeply committed to.

MC: It’s good that you are in a position to suggest what repertoire you can play. However it must be wearing to have to play the same old warhorses of the repertoire over and over again.

A-SM: It’s a real pity when that happens. A young performer will have pieces that are mandatory – to be played as a kind of musical passport, and one of them is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. But later we all have to decide if we want to repeat our journey into the same repertoire or do we want to be a bit more adventurous. It requires a certain amount of risk-taking to suggest playing repertoire that is not mainstream. But it’s every musician’s personal decision how he or she wants to lead their lives.

MC: I love to hear new works. I was in Berlin last September for the Musikfest 2011 and I heard you play Wolfgang Rihm’s Time Chant for violin and orchestra with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It was held on the day of 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America.

A-SM: I remember. Yes, it’s a relatively new piece and one I enjoy very much.

MC: It was well received. I only saw one person with their fingers in their ears.

A-SM: [Laughing] Only one! That’s a good sign!

MC: I know there were people in the Philharmonie audience who thought they would not enjoy Time Chant but I sensed that many were enthralled with the piece. I strongly feel that new music has to be extremely well played.

A-SM: It was Beethoven that said, “Even a foolish player cannot destroy good music.”

MC: But history is full of poor performances that have greatly affected the reputation of a new piece of music.

A-SM: I feel that contemporary music needs a different kind of deep commitment. But yes, I guess the marriage between the contemporary piece and the player has to be even more intense as we don’t know yet if the piece has what it takes to be sustained over centuries to come. For a short period in music history the player actually is of great importance, for contemporary music only. But in order to generate new repertoire, to inspire a new generation of composer, a player has to work really hard to ensure that he leaves useful traces for future generations.

MC: Which particular pieces of music do you like to play best of all?

A-SM: Well I’m here in Manchester playing an interesting recital. So I will talk about chamber music. The Schubert Fantasie in C major D.934 which I am playing tonight is the crown of chamber music repertoire.

MC: That’s quite a claim.

A-SM: Seriously, it’s the greatest piece ever written for violin and piano. It’s so difficult. It’s so difficult and for each of us we have to be so together, so much in synch and it deals with the beautiful song of Schubert ‘Sei mir gegrüβt’ (‘I greet you’) with a text that has to do with loss. One lover has already died and is in heaven and the other lover is still here on earth suffering with terrible grief. It is quite philosophical really. In the second half we play the original version of the Lutosławski Partita which he wrote in 1984. It was the orchestrated version that he wrote and dedicated to me in 1988. The Saint-Saëns First Violin Sonata is at the end of the programme. It’s a fabulous piece Michael but it’s like jumping through burning hoops at the end of an evening recital. If you want to know which piece I like the most it’s impossible to say. I can’t tell you. I enjoy each work for its individual character. Obviously there are pieces of music that I don’t understand yet and maybe I never will.

MC: Would you place the Schoenberg and Ligeti concertos in that category?

A-SM: They are not necessarily quite my language; not yet anyway. It’s not their difficulty that puts me off them. Actually I’m quite attracted to difficult pieces of music.

MC: I noticed that Hilary Hahn has recently recorded the Schoenberg concerto. She manages to bring out the score’s Romantic qualities more than I have heard previously.

A-SM: Were you convinced by it Michael?

MC: Yes, I was; for the most part. It was like hearing the score in a whole different light but it remains tough listening.

A-SM: I guess that with 12-tone music some people think that the Berg Violin Concerto is cerebral in construction, which of course it is in one way. But there is so much human emotion contained in it that you really have to dig deep to get under its skin. I would say that it’s a late-Romantic piece rather than a purely cerebral composition.

MC: And of course its dedication “To the memory of an angel.”

A-SM: Yes, it was dedicated to the memory of Manon the daughter of Alma Mahler [Note: widow of Gustav Mahler] and her second husband Walter Gropius.

Anne-Sophie Mutter © Deutsche Grammophon, photo Harald Hoffmann

MC: With regard to English violin concertos. I love the Walton concerto, [A-SM: Oh! Me too] the Elgar and the Britten. Are they works that might form part of your repertoire in the future?

A-SM: I am currently starting the Walton concerto and I’m very interested in the Britten too. The Elgar concerto I don’t think that I’m quite ready for yet. There are some younger colleagues who to my understanding play the Elgar really well. The Walton and the Britten concertos are more close to me.

MC: I have always loved the Walton Violin Concerto in the recording by Yehudi Menuhin conducted by Walton himself and also by Nigel Kennedy under André Previn too.

A-SM: Oh! It’s a gorgeous concerto. I have an account of the concerto played by Jascha Heifetz for whom it was written. I hear Heifetz all over when I look at the score.

MC: Anne-Sophie I would love to hear you play and record those three English concertos in the future.

A-SM: We’ll see. The Britten concerto is one of his finer works. It’s very inventive.

MC: I recall Janine Jansen saying that when she performed it with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2009 that the orchestra hadn’t played it for fifty years. It’s so neglected in the concert hall.

A-SM: Yes, it doesn’t surprise me.

MC: I forgot to mention earlier that I also admire the version of the Britten played by Ida Haendel under Paavo Berglund.

A-SM: Sure, it’s a wonderful work.

MC: You said it was a work that you will be playing.

A-SM: Yes, I am playing it in the very near future.

MC: I can see the violin case here next to you on the couch. Which violin are you playing at tonight’s recital? I believe you have two Stradivarius instruments?

A-SM: My Lord Dunn-Raven Stradivarius of 1710 is the one I usually play. I think the descendants of the Irish family that owned it have all died off.

MC: You live in Munich yet you are inextricably linked with the Berlin Philharmonic.

A-SM: I do play with Munich orchestras. Just back in February I did a benefit concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons for Munich children from disadvantaged backgrounds. I played the Dvořák concerto for them.

MC: Looking at your profile you seem to have a passion for charity work.

A-SM: Yes I do. I like to do charitable work mostly for children but also for people with special needs and for older people too. I find it so rewarding.

MC: On a change of tack now. I’m thinking of Viktoria Mullova, Alina Ibragimova and there are other violinists too who play using period instruments, either all the time, the majority of the time or some of the time. Has this period approach using gut strings and period bows ever appealed to you?

A-SM: No. It’s never appealed to me. Not at all. I do use a baroque bow in order to play baroque music. It’s shorter and much lighter with a different kind of personality obviously. This allows me to play original phrasings in Bach’s concertos.

MC: So you do adopt some period informed approaches.

A-SM: I do what I believe in, which is the original phrasing – which is very much like talking when constructing a sentence correctly, that is important to me. I don’t believe in the dogma of the rightness from a dramatic viewpoint of a supposedly original way of sound. Thinking that you have found a formula for something as complex and as multi-layered is fatal. You are starting to repeat it under certain rigid formula which doesn’t give you the possibilities to really cut through all the layers and to reinvent them, always of course trying to be true to the music. That’s why the original phrasing is so important. It’s more important than using gut strings for me. It’s like today’s Shakespeare plays using women actors which doesn’t make the plays worse; it probably improves them. It’s just not what they did in Shakespeare’s time.

MC: I recall asking the pianist John Lill why he didn’t play on period instruments. He said he didn’t think Bach would have turned down a modern bathroom.

A-SM: [Laughing] Oh yes! Nor me. Bach would have wanted the finest instruments that were available to him at that time.

MC: You must have performed with hundreds of conductors in your career. Apart from André of course, which conductors have you especially enjoyed performing with? [Note: Anne-Sophie Mutter and André Previn were married from 2002-2006]

A-SM: If you look back at my discography there are a good number of conductors that I often perform with, those that I work well with on a long term musical relationship. Kurt Masur for example is one of those. He is very tall like a German tree; as strong as German oak.

MC: So he is someone that you respect and love to perform with.

A-SM: Of course. He is a fine conductor to work with. Yes, but in the same breath I also like to expand my musical collaborators into all sorts of directions. Lately you must have noticed that there is this large group of young and often highly capable conductors. I am trying out my working relationship with them as I come across them to see who has the appropriate capacity. Many of the more established conductors are in their seventies and over, which leaves a large gap between this younger generation. I’m very interested to see who is coming on the scene. I’m also very interested to pass on what I have learnt from the great masters. So I feel a little like a link in the chain to the past. I’ve been impressed with the young English conductor Michael Francis. In New York we did the première of the Wolfgang Rihm piece called Lichtes Spiel that I would translate into English as Light Games. Michael Francis used to deputise for Valery Gergiev at the London Symphony Orchestra; he’s a name to look out for.

MC: In England I think that the London born conductor Robin Ticciati is one of the finest of the new crop of conductors. I’ve seen him conduct the Hallé Orchestra here at the Bridgewater Hall and he’s recently been announced as the music director of Glyndebourne from 2014.

A-SM: He is a new name to me. I will look out for him.

MC: I want to mention some other names to you: Yehudi Menuhin; Maxim Vengerov; Viktoria Mullova; Nikolaj Znaider and here in England we have Tasmin Little. There are others too, all renowned violin soloists with great careers and all now conducting. I have seen you on YouTube conducting Mozart from the violin in Boston. What is it with all these world class violinists that want to conduct?

A-SM: Well, I’m not really conducting in the Mozart concerti. I’m leading from the violin.

MC: You’re directing a classical orchestra.

A-SM: Yes, that is what I am doing in Mozart. I will never conduct a symphony, Michael. I will always stick to violin repertoire.

MC: I can recall opera singers conducting. Placida Domingo and Jose Cura spring to mind. Many musicians and performers seem to want to try another aspect of music making, but it’s not for you?

A-SM: Only in the manner of Mozart directing from the violin or piano. In order to inspire the orchestra to be really totally connected to the soloist and to be in the mood of the chamber music setting. Last year I had the great honour to be at the opening of the new season at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As they had no chief conductor I was invited to lead my Mozart concerti. So there was no conductor. It was a huge honour and the orchestra played so marvellously well. So conducting is not what I’m aiming for. After all these years I’m still rather fascinated by the violin and the remaining repertoire. So I’ll stick to that, I guess.

MC: What was it like Anne-Sophie working for Herbert von Karajan? You were very young at the time.

A-SM: Yes I was thirteen when we met. And we played for exactly thirteen years together until his death in 1989.

MC: Karajan is often portrayed as this uncompromising professional. Did he make allowances for such a young performer as you were at that time?

A-SM: Age-wise I am between his two daughters. I guess that somehow made our relationship very harmonious. Of course, he was very demanding but he was so wonderfully wise. He knew just how far he could push a young musician and also the orchestra. He would always push you to the edge of what you could comprehend at that very moment; what you were physically able to bring to the performance. Actually I had the most wonderful and memorable years with him because I learned so much. Obviously everything was new to me but everything was wonderful really.

MC: If I may I’d like to ask you about André [Previn]. You still regularly tour with him in concert and in recital.

A-SM: Yes I do. André and I just did his Double Concerto for Violin and Viola last month in London with the LSO.

MC: With violist Yuri Bashmet I think?

A-SM: Yes it was. It was the European première of the piece that we gave. The American première was given in New York for André’s eightieth birthday in 2009. We have always loved to work together and that of course continues. We are each other’s greatest fans and remain great friends.

MC: What do you regard as André Previn’s greatest achievement – classical, jazz, musicals or opera?

A-SM: André is tremendously gifted in all musical spheres. Never have I worked with anyone as diversely gifted.

MC: How in your view does André compare with Leonard Bernstein?

A-SM: [Laughing] Bernstein was a pretty good composer but André is better.

MC: From such a young age André Previn was so successful in his Hollywood film score arrangements and his original film scores.

A-SM: He was nominated for Academy Awards thirteen times and won four and then there are his Grammy awards. It’s an incredible record.

MC: You’re enjoying playing chamber music with André?

A-SM: Yes of course. We still have to give the world première of André’s Violin Sonata in July in Essen, Germany and then the American première at Tanglewood.

MC: This is the Previn Second Violin Sonata?

A-SM: Yes. The First Violin Sonata Vineyard’was I think for Joshua Bell but I cannot swear to that. [Note: The First Violin Sonata (1994) was premièred by violinist Eunice Lee and the composer.]

MC: Incidentally, Joshua Bell is another world famous violinist who’s now conducting. He’s the new music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in London. I would think he assumes the role of old style concertmaster.

A-SM: With so many violinists conducting I should be around playing the violin for quite a long time then. [Laughing]

MC: I realise that you must love Munich the city you have chosen as your home. I can see why; it’s such a beautiful city. Are you able to lead a normal life there?

A-SM: I do lead a totally normal life, yes. I do however lead a very private life there. I guess if I had lived more at the centre of media attention then it would have been very difficult to do. But I’ve always been a very private person.

MC: So you have avoided drawing attention to yourself in the media?

A-SM: Oh yes, exactly. I avoid attending certain events. Only on a few occasions did I feel slightly interrogated by the press. But I have a very good relationship even with the yellow press because I don’t talk loosely or fool around with them. They know that I’m not the type of person who wants their private life discussed in public. Therefore I can just live the life that I want.

MC: With a son named Richard and a daughter named Arabella, and your offices in a Munich technology park having the street names Arabellastraße; Salomeweg and Elektrastraße, there just has to be a Richard Strauss connection there.

A-SM: [Laughing] No, no. As a child I loved the story of the English King Richard the Lionheart. [Laughing] So there is definitely no connection to Richard Strauss. There is no connection to Richard Wagner either who was a great composer but a horrible, horrible person. So I would never name my son Richard after Wagner. I realise that not every genius is a wonderful person; maybe that is asking too much. Of course there are people in music history like Mendelssohn who are really fabulous people. They are great for society, give so much back, being aware of the necessity to connect with the world around them. Being a genius Mendelssohn not only wrote wonderful music he spoke several languages, wrote prose and poetry.

MC: Painted watercolours and drew.

A-SM: Yes he was so multi-talented.

MC: I was struck how Felix Mendelssohn’s parents denounced their Jewish heritage and converted to Christianity including Felix and his siblings. I’ve seen his simple family grave in Berlin buried with his sister Fanny and wife Cécile.

A-SM: At that time it was much easier to be Protestant, a Lutheran, in order to become part of the upper class society and so to obtain the advantages. That’s why Mendelssohn’s father actually decided to baptise his children as Christians. But Mendelssohn was always torn between his Jewish roots and his Christian beliefs. Maybe that’s why he wrote the most wonderful oratorios St Paul and Elijah.

MC: I agree St Paul and Elijah are great scores. That reminds me. A couple of years ago I attended a performance of Elijah with the Munich Bach Choir and Bach Collegium in the St. Michael Church in Munich. The city really is a centre of music. How does Munich compare to Berlin in that respect?

A-SM: Berlin is buzzing, it’s a young, vibrant city. By comparison Bavaria and Munich are more conservative. They invest an awful lot of money in Munich in culture; which makes it a musical heaven for everyone. Let’s hope that Bavaria will stay strong. Our Bavarian economy is still strong and the arts are not suffering as much as other sections of the German economy.

MC: That’s good to hear Anne-Sophie. Now on a different topic I’d like to ask you if you are an intuitive player or an analytic player.

A-SM: Oh, Michael I am a mixture of both. I have great instincts. But over the years I have developed a few grey cells to help me along the way. I have to dig deep and I have to know a piece and its origins as well as the technical side. I give my music proper analysis before I let my instincts go wild. But you need to keep a balance because you should never get carried away totally in a piece. After all I am serving the composer. It’s not my piece. I have to keep a balance between being totally immersed in the music and the outer voice which tells you how the architecture has to look at the end of the piece. You need to bring out certain structures and highlight where your musical thought is going. One cannot wonder around and get caught up in the total beauty of every single note. You have to have told the story by the end of the piece and the picture has to be filled in with form not only colour. It’s a great discipline every evening that I perform to try to find a good balance between the form and the shape of the piece and its contents which is emotion. I would not put one or the other first.

MC: Anne-Sophie can you tell me which piece of music you think deserves to be heard more often than it currently is? I’m talking about neglected works in the repertoire.

A-SM: Michael there are so many works that could be described in that category. [Laughing] As I mentioned earlier the Schubert Fantasie in C major for violin and piano that I’m playing tonight. It’s totally ignored yet it leaves the audience spellbound. It’s not that it’s not understood, and even that wouldn’t be a reason not to play it. It’s extremely like Mozart’s writing, it’s very transparent and it is terribly uncomfortable technically. As Richard Strauss used to say to the horns that were complaining that he was writing such high parts for them, “I’m writing, you are playing.”[Laughing] That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Then again there is the Berg Violin Concerto. There are lots of contemporary pieces that I have played and premièred in the last twenty years or so. I like the way Wolfgang Rihm; Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutosławski write for the violin. I see a young generation of performers who, from what I can see, play so little contemporary music. For what Gidon Kremer has done in terms of violin repertoire he’s a total hero, a total hero. Funnily enough Gidon’s career started in the West around the same time as mine in 1976. What he has done since then for living composers is admirable. If it hadn’t been for him the repertoire would be far less broad. I have had this foundation twelve years to assist fledgling string players worldwide and of course we buy instruments as much as our budget will allow but the point is that we also offer commissions.

MC: From young composers?

A-SM: Yes, but also for more established composers and famous composers too. I mean André has written a relatively new Double Concerto for Violin and Double Bass commissioned by the foundation for the fabulous double bass player Roman Patkoló.

I try to put a huge emphasis on contemporary music for my young scholars in the foundation. We have to train a young generation. I feel it is my duty to do so Michael. You see by not doing things which are difficult you won’t grow as a performer. Eventually, as it says in one of the children’s stories, the highest hanging grapes are the sweetest. It’s true! When one finally manages to go to the trouble to pick those at the very top they do taste all the sweeter. So there is also significant gain. It’s not as if you feel that you are killing yourself for no reason.

MC: I think far too many listeners have not developed an ear for contemporary music. One has to put in the work certainly a lot more in the way of concentration before gaining the undoubted rewards. An open mind is necessary too.

A-SM: Yes you are so right. I feel that I don’t play perhaps the amount of contemporary music that I feel that I ought as I have a very ‘classical’ taste in music. But I think we all have a right to say no.

MC: I have sometimes played the Previn Violin Concerto at recorded music societies, where members bring their own records or when I am giving a presentation. It’s an accessible work of contemporary music not written in any progressively off-putting or jarring manner. It’s a million miles away from the extremely difficult language of say the Schoenberg and Ligeti concertos. I have played it more than once without revealing who the composer is. It’s always well received and members are delighted when they discover who the composer is and several have expressed surprise why they have not heard it before. Many say it inhabits a similar sound world to the Korngold concerto. That’s as maybe but it’s a beautiful piece of music that deserves to be better known. If I had said it was by a contemporary composer that would have put many people off. Many would say. Oh! We won’t like this.

A-SM: That’s right Michael. Music doesn’t have to be off-putting. It still has to embrace the listener. It can challenge the listener but not purposely turn the listener away feeling too dumb to understand. Music should be written in a language we can share even if it’s initially written in a challenging language that is foreign to us. Some portion of the heart and soul of the composer should be found in there in order to relate as a player as well as a listener. The audiences in England and particularly in London are receptive to contemporary music. I’m always amazed by what I can play there. London is always totally at the forefront but of course in every country as soon as you move away from the more cosmopolitan cities the challenge becomes more difficult for audiences to accept. The audience takes extra time in more provincial areas. It will come slowly but eventually.

MC: Here in Manchester Sir Mark Elder the music director of the Hallé Orchestra

is the conducting favourite. I was wondering if you have worked with him?

A-SM: Oh, yes! He’s a wonderful conductor. I worked with him and the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall. That would be in 2009. I enjoyed it tremendously. I used to play many times with the Hallé Orchestra in the 1980s when

Stanisław Skrowaczewski was their principal conductor.

MC: I’m sure you will have played most of those concerts at the old Free Trade Hall which is only about a hundred metres from where we’re sitting now. It’s been converted into a Radisson Edwardian 5 star Hotel. Sadly opinions are very mixed about the success of maestro Skrowaczewski’s tenure in Manchester.

A-SM: I love the new Bridgwater Hall here in Manchester but the Free Trade Hall now a hotel! I am really surprised. I always thought Stanisław Skrowaczewski to be a fine conductor but I guess it’s like a marriage, at first everything is wonderful and then it gets maybe a little rocky.

MC: Time has caught up with us. Thank you so much Anne-Sophie for your time.

A-SM: Actually it was most enjoyable Michael. I don’t know why I’m surprised about that. [Laughing]

Michael Cookson