Back to the Future
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin): Berg & Sibelius Violin Concertos, LSO/Kurt Masur, Barbican 3 May
The orchestral component of Anne-Sophie Mutter's Back to the Future odyssey got under way with performances of two of the greatest twentieth century violin concertos. Very different in character, and mood, the Berg and the Sibelius concertos offer ripe opportunities for a virtuoso in Mutter's mould: that the results were not always as persuasive as one might have expected proved disappointing.
The Berg should really leave one shattered after a performance, almost desensitised. This one did not. The first movement, which should be set against a developing background of tension and fragmentation, didn't quite evince the sense of genuine neurosis this work generates. The andante hovered almost too restfully, the dance-like allegretto was too reserved. The second movement, with its turbulent allegro and cadenza, leading to the epiphanal, closing tragedy of the work, left one spellbound by Ms Mutter's artistry, but saddened by her uninvolvement. The sense of loss and resignation, which are so important in the final pages, were largely absent, the tragedy starkly ironed-out rather than deeply moving. What this performance suffered from was over-familiarity.
The Sibelius was a different matter altogether. This was a genuinely exciting performance, brought off with tremendous panache. Unlike Ms Mutter's recording of the work, which is almost too humane, this was a glacial paradise. Here, icicles hung from the walls of the Barbican hall as if a blizzard of notes were being hurled off in a Siberian snowstorm. If at times her bow seemed to generate an almost steel-like sonority from the strings this was in keeping with her performance, which at times came close to brushing with death. The purity of her upper register was spectacular, the virtuosity in the closing pages of the first movement seamlessly held together at a whirlwind speed. Her slow movement was frost-beaded and wreathed in the most glorious phrasing. For once, the final movement lumbered like polar bears dancing in the snow.
Earlier, Kurt Masur had performed one of Prokofiev's suites from Romeo and Juliet. The massive opening chords of Montagues and Capulets had stunning power and range, and the famous variation was dramatically done. But it was the final three pieces that proved the most exciting. The Balcony Scene generated a passion from the LSO strings that was utterly heartrending. Masur elicited this response solely by lunging towards the cellos and almost pulling the sound from the body of the instruments himself. The Death of Tybalt was furious, as if he were being cut down by a thousand cuts, so razor-sharp was the playing. This was searing and dramatic stuff. Romeo at Juliet's Tomb was overwhelming, the tragedy and despair evident in every note. The LSO played magnificently for Masur in what, for me, was the highlight of the evening.
Back to the Future continues on May 5 and May 7 with Anne-Sophie Mutter and Kurt Masur. On June 10 and 11 Kurt Masur will conduct the New York Philharmonic in works by Shostakovich and Mahler.
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