The Sydney Symphony Fellowship year offers all sorts of opportunities not normally available to young musicians, including the chance to observe and work with some of the world’s leading soloists. And if you’re a string player, it doesn’t get much better than the chance to witness German violin virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter at work.
Last month that was the opportunity on offer to Fellowship viola player Neil Thompson, who was among those musicians rostered on to perform in the orchestra’s concerts with Mutter. (Fellowship cellist Eleanor Betts was also in the orchestra that week.) Neil was understandably excited.
“Anne-Sophie Mutter holds legendary status,” Neil says. “Not just in my opinion but in the opinion of anyone who has ever heard her play.” It was a mixed blessing that the string sections were reduced for Mutter’s piece in the first half, the Beethoven Violin Concerto. On the one hand Neil wasn’t playing alongside in the orchestra, on the other hand, “witnessing the spectacle was an experience in itself.”
There’s a particular buzz that surrounds a celebrity artist such as Anne-Sophie Mutter. There’s the story of her being discovered by Herbert von Karajan as a teenager, her reputation for wearing stunning designer gowns, and the sheer anticipation brought on by the fact that this was her first visit to Australia in a career of more than 35 years. It takes a true artist to rise above the hype and, as Mutter herself would say, “serve the composer, serve the music.”
“No matter what people were there to see,” says Neil, “whether it was her Galliano gown, or the Opera House itself, it was her professionalism and artistry that shone through on the night.”
Mutter has long been known for her love of living composers. She recently appeared as artist in residence with the New York Philharmonic, performing music by Sofia Gubaidulina and several world premieres. But for her Australian debut she chose a concerto from the core of the violin repertoire, more philosophical than ‘flashy’: the Beethoven.
“That was a really bold and exciting move,” says Neil. “It allowed her to show off her tone and articulation.” And in a press conference earlier in the week, Mutter pointed out that a piece like the Beethoven allows for a true dialogue between soloist and conductor and orchestra – something that was important for a first collaboration.
Reflecting further on the week’s musical experience, Neil zeros in on Mutter’s distinctive sound. “It was amazing to hear her sound. It borrows heavily from what we call the ‘old school’ – very Russian – and the intensely expressive vibrato that entails, but it has evolved into something completely new. She has a cutting projection – the capacity to reach the back rows even when playing super softly. It’s a quality that I and a lot of my contemporaries aspire to.” Following the Beethoven concerto in the first half, the full orchestra (including Neil) took to the stage for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, easily one of his most popular works.
“Being part of Ashkenazy’s take on Shostakovich Five was a real treat for me. Shostakovich’s music arose out of some of the most oppressive times in the history of mankind –right at the peak of the Stalinist purges, so it’s easy for many conductors to wallow in the ‘doom and gloom’ whilst glossing over the strong undertones of cloaked, satiric protest. I felt, however, that Ashkenazy found a perfect balance; he was generous with the music, allowing it the intensity and drama it deserved but without indulging in the effects that can make Shostakovich sound self pitying. It was obvious that this is a piece of music he knew very, very well.”
Perhaps the highlight of the concert, though, was Anne-Sophie Mutter’s encore following the Beethoven: just her and her Stradivarius violin in the Sarabande from Bach’s solo Partita No.2. Hearing her perform this contemplative work from a musical master showed just why aspiring musicians such as Neil would take inspiration from her artistry, her technique and her charisma.
“Anne-Sophie Mutter is a classic example of someone who follows a sound and musical purpose that’s true to her personality. Her playing is on another level altogether – every note that comes from her violin reveals that she lives, breathes and understands music in a way that only a genius can. You could use all the superlatives in the world to describe Anne-Sophie Mutter’s music, but I think the rapturous applause was probably the most fitting indication – honestly, the cheering was as loud as I’ve ever heard in the Concert Hall. And she totally deserved it!”
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