January 23, 2008

A Royal Visit

Ozawa and Mutter with the Berlin Phil


Ludwig van Beethoven
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 61

Peter Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 6 in B minor "Pathétique", Op. 74


Berliner Philharmoniker
Seiji Ozawa - Conductor
Anne-Sophie Mutter - Violin

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

A Royal Visit

Ozawa and Mutter with the Berlin Phil

by Anicia Timberlake / Photo: Harald Hoffmann / DG

Seiji Ozawa and Anne-Sophie Mutter, who enjoy royalty status in the contemporary classical music scene, have more than earned their excellent reputations. Not only are they first-rate musicians, they are consummate performers. Ozawa never fails to enchant with his silvered mane, his beaming smile, and his endearing habit of rushing into the orchestra during the very first curtain call to shake the musicians warmly by the hand. Mutter is a queen among violinists, with her dignified, poised stage presence. During orchestral tutti sections, when other violinists might adjust their shoulder rest (Mutter plays without one) or stretch their hands, she inclines her head most graciously in concentration, one hand casually dangling the violin by its scroll. And, of course, her impeccable concert gowns and flowers to match—Wednesday's color was yellow—only enhance the effect.

Anne-Sophie Mutter

The extra-musical features were not lost on the audience at this concert, a benefit for the Orchestra Academy on the occasion of Herbert von Karajan's 100th birthday. The stars were met with rapturous applause, impassioned shouts of "Bravo", and a partial standing ovation. Musical purists might insist that appearance and atmosphere make no difference, that sound is everything. It's true that these visual and atmospheric effects are lost on a recording. Yet just as a bored-looking conductor can sour a beautiful sound, a brilliant performance can sweeten less-than-perfect music.

Mutter maintains one of the most rigorous performing schedules in the profession. It was clear that she had played the Beethoven Concerto many times in her long career. It was also clear that her familiarity with the piece was both an advantage and a disadvantage to her performance. All the gestures—the breathtaking decrescendos on ascending scales, the surprising subito pianos in the middle of phrases, the absence of vibrato in the sul-G passages (passages played exclusively on the G string)—were so refined as to be extreme. The result was an interpretation of Beethoven that bordered on deconstruction: it focused so exclusively on the execution of these short chunks of music that any larger direction or phrasing throughout the concerto was completely lost. This was not quite as bad as it sounds: it was a really interesting musical effect, full of exciting risks. The second movement suffered a little, as it was plodding and stilted, but the first and third movements were glorious. Interpretation aside, Mutter has an unparalleled sound: clear, even sparkling, and always audible at any volume. It would be a treat even to just hear her play open strings. Yet her otherwise flawless technique suffered a little bit from her over-familiarity with the piece. Some of the fast runs were incoherent, and she occasionally ran out of bow. Ozawa and the Berlin Philharmonic held up the orchestra side of things very nicely, with some piquant rubato. Mutter performed the Sarabande from Bach's 2nd Partita for Solo Violin as an encore.

Ozawa conducted a thoroughly satisfying Tchaikovsky. In contrast to the Beethoven, which was full of extremes, the symphony was lean and hummed along at a nice pace, avoiding any maudlin excess. Every gesture and flourish had a purpose, and every phrase led seamlessly into the next. The third movement was especially enjoyable—the orchestra struck exactly the right balance between lively and pompous, with no little humor. Individual instrument sections, especially the flutes, trombones, and violas, played lovely solos, and the clarinets had some electrifying pianissimo moments. Ozawa, who has enough energy for four people, danced most charmingly around the podium, jogged off and on stage, and seemed absolutely delighted about everything. The audience was more than happy to share his enjoyment. After all, it was a program designed to make everyone feel good—two of the biggest star performers, two of the biggest star pieces. The mood from stage and seats reflected a desire to celebrate.