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Beethoven, Shostakovich Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Masur, Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday, February 3rd, 2004 (CC)


Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Beethoven Violin Concerto are hardly strangers – she recorded the piece with the Berliner Philharmoniker and von Karajan when a mere slip of a girl (DG 413 818-2), then returned to the piece in May 2000 for a live performance with the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur (471 349-2). No surprise, then, that despite her youth (still!), this was a fully-formed and mature interpretation.

There is an evident rapport between Mutter and Masur. At the outset and before a note had been struck, both seemed keen to get on (Mutter seems not to like any sort of bowing to the audience – a sort of token nod suffices). Masur set a tempo that was more Allegro shorn of the ‘ma non troppo’ - he can on occasion give off a feeling of superficiality, and that was certainly the case here. The music did not carry through the silences. Thus segmented, the opening tutti seemed to lack some direction despite some niceties, including obviously carefully prepared balances. The six double basses added weight without any muddying of textures.

Mutter matched the LPO’s lightness of sound by deliberately eschewing an over-sonorous lower register and by projecting the sweetest of melodies at the upper end. Masur’s accompaniment was astonishing in its flexibility – he was right there for her, every time. Yet he could also gloss over some of Beethoven’s more daring moments. When Beethoven sets up a huge registral space in the first movement (high violins juxtaposed with double basses), it was not the quasi-modernist moment it can seem. But the audience came for Mutter, and she did not disappoint. It is not just the textbook-perfect trills which yet had lots of emotion, the faultless tuning or the way she can inject the most innocent arpeggio with volumes of meaning. It was the whole conception, the way she seems to have absorbed this edifice and have it completely underneath her skin. Putting a handkerchief on her violin shoulder for the cadenza (later taking it off again), Mutter elevated this passage’s humble status to an integral part of the experience. It was the Kreisler she played, treating us to a veritable feast of faultless stopping.

Masur’s expert ear worked wonders with the strings at the onset of the Larghetto (Mutter seemed to be listening intently). Later these same strings formed a bed of sound for Mutter to ruminate over in a meditation of the highest concentration. In my experience, only Oscar Shumsky, many years ago in the same venue, equalled the concentration on offer here. A pity the finale took time to take flight (only in the stratosphere of the themes second statement did the true verve of the movement arrive). The solo bassoon (Philip Tarlton) made his phrases dance infectiously; Mutter really dug into her cadenza, defying belief in her command of her instrument. A performance of some distinction that almost made it to greatness.

Masur’s Shostakovich can be variable. A Thirteenth left me wanting more raw abandon almost exactly a year ago and this was pretty much the same. The etiolated violin line and (very) dotted rhythms of the opening boded well, although there was the niggling suspicion this was all a bit fast. The prominent early oboe entry, that can and should be like a shaft of light, was worryingly literal – similarly, Masur had no time for most harmonic arrival points. Control was all and this worked well in the March with its prominent side drum and glockenspiel. The second movement formed an interpretative pair with the first. Lumbering but agile cellos and double basses impressed, yet one wished for more of a sense of parody (only the horns really obliged, being marvellously vulgar). Only an unexpected ‘Petrushka-moment’ raised eyebrows.

The final two movements fared better. The rapt song of the Largo was positively radiant, pianissimos really were the stipulated dynamic, and the harp harmonics were ravishing on the ear. Good also that the manic juxtapositions of the finale made for a raw ride and that the timpani, rightly, battered its way through. Nevertheless, it was the Beethoven that made the evening worthwhile.

Colin Clarke




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