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The Complete Violin Sonatas

Anne-Sophie Mutter (vln) & Lambert Orkis (pf)
DG 073 014-9, 2 discs (176'18 & 159'37), Full Price + documentary by Reiner Moritz
Crotchet  £29.99   AmazonUK   £23.99 AmazonUS $25.49


Deutsche Grammophon have already released a single disc of two of the sonatas plus the Moritz documentary so this release, although complete, will possibly cause consternation amongst those who have already purchased the single disc set. With the major film companies now releasing films on DVD one week, only for a special edition with multiple extras to appear of the same film the next, it is not a route record companies should choose to follow, particularly for a medium that has yet to prove profitable to them.

Having said that, this is a very welcome DVD release of an important series of concerts. Anne-Sophie Mutter, as she explains in the documentary, gave up a year of her life to concentrate solely on playing and recording the Beethoven Violin Sonatas in a series of concerts world wide - a luxury, she admits, afforded to few musicians. These performances come from the Paris cycle and are remarkably fresh. From the Haydnesque early sonatas to the altogether more challenging later sonatas, particularly a magnificent 'Kreutzer', these are performances that hint neither at over-preparedness nor over-familiarity. There is real spontaneity in many of these performances and a real sense of partnership between these superlative artists. Mutter is happy to allow Orkis to take the spotlight (and in the case of the op.23 dictate the development of the work). In every one of these sonatas there is ample proof that Mutter and Orkis are working for Beethoven and not for themselves. I found them riveting to watch.

I had initially thought that chamber music might challenge the purpose of the DVD format. However, DG's rather close camera angles hint that these are personal interpretations coming from a drawing room rather than a concert stage. However, far from giving the impression of congestion the film actually broadens out the element of tightness which can disfigure some concert DVDs (Karajan's Sony films, for example, which look as if they are filmed in a box). Both soloists are spot lit so everything around them appears to be wrapped in darkness - and in a remarkable point of departure at the close of some of the sonatas a camera films them from behind as they face the audience. Clever lighting shows a black void - adding to the impression that these performances were played to an empty concert hall. With only minimal intrusion from the audience during the performances it is a sublime moment which suggests they might have been (although, of course, it only an illusion). We do get close ups of both Orkis' and Mutter's finger-work - however, in this case the camera is more successful at conveying the piano than it is the violin. Piano students will learn much from Lambert Orkis' delicacy of touch and keyboard control; violin students will learn little from Mutter's technique since it is largely hidden from view.

If the performances themselves are spontaneous the documentary is anything but. During some of the exchanges between Mutter and Orkis (both during rehearsal and, later, at a restaurant) their banter about music seems highly suspicious, as if manufactured for the purpose. I simply cannot imagine musicians of this calibre debating some of the 'musical' issues raised (Beethoven wrote like this because he was deaf) - and Mutter comes across as largely the student to Orkis' pedagogue. Surely for two souls who have lived in each other's pockets for as long as these two have (this is by no means their first collaboration) the conversation might have been more lively? Yes, we do get to hear about their sharply different opinions on the op.23, and some interesting perceptions on the piano/violin role in No 10, op.96, but beyond that the conversation is rather pointless. Interestingly, another of Mutter's pedagogues raises his head - Karajan. Mutter talks rather frankly about their recording of the Beethoven concerto - made when she was still a teenager. It still strikes me as a beautiful recording - and hearing Mutter's glorious tone and phrasing during some of the film of it confirms this. Yet, she says that soon after the recording was made they both thought the recording unrepresentative of what they had subsequently achieved. It would have been fascinating to have heard a later interpretation by these supreme Beethovenians and hearing Mutter's comments about the Karajan recording made me anxious for one. Far from believing that Karajan 'pushed' Mutter too early, too quickly, we are told that he did ask her to prepare the concerto for him. After hearing a few bars of the opening of the first movement he simply said - 'come back next year'. Mutter claims it was the first musical disappointment of her life.

It is certainly an interesting documentary - and well worth adding to the superb recordings of the sonatas. Interestingly, it is filmed in English. Deutsche Grammophon's presentation of these discs is superb - with one of the clearest menus I have yet seen in this format. Each sonata is an integrated performance with credits appearing after each, and movements can be selected individually. The booklet is a model of its kind lavishly illustrated with photographs and with an excellent essay on the sonatas by Tully Potter. High values indeed.

Many will probably not watch all of the recordings in one sitting - although I did not find it so arduous an undertaking as I had expected. They play in chronological order (which adds to the enjoyment of hearing them as Beethoven might have heard them in his own mind). But these are important recordings of an artist at her prime. And hear them you must.

Marc Bridle

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