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Prodigy's Principle: Keep It Fresh

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter has been a star since she was 13--the secret, she says, is the pursuit of the new.

March 02, 1997|Tamara Bernstein | Tamara Bernstein is a music critic and writer in Toronto

Anne-Sophie Mutter sounds slightly embarrassed when she explains why, of Brahms' three sonatas for violin and piano, she feels closest to the first, in G-major. "It quotes his 'Regenlied' [Rainsong], where he looks back on his lost youth," the celebrated German violinist said in a recent transatlantic phone conversation. "And I'm kind of reaching the age where I can appreciate that."

Mutter has been honing the Brahms sonatas, which she brings to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday, over the course of her career. "Warm-blooded, living, breathing perfection," wrote critic Marc Shulgold when she played them six years ago in Denver.

Yet it is hard not to giggle, or at least raise an eyebrow, when Mutter speaks of her lost youth: She is, after all, only 33. Then again, Mutter has faced a lot in those three decades.

The daughter of a newspaper publisher in Germany's Black Forest, she was 13 when Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan--then one of the most powerful figures in the music industry--made her his protegee and pronounced her "the greatest musical prodigy since [Yehudi] Menuhin."

By the time she entered her 20s, the age when many child prodigies drop off the map, she defied the statistics, successfully making the transition to an adult career, complete with grown-up good looks. When she was 26, she married and started a family, all the while keeping her career on the fast track, logging as many as 120 appearances a year. Then in August 1995, Mutter's husband, Detlef Wunderlich, died, leaving her to juggle single parenthood with her itinerant professional life.

Mutter, who likes to keep her private life private, isn't about to say in detail what she sees when she looks back over her "lost youth" and that challenging history. But what the rest of the world remarks on are two constants: real talent coupled with an unshakable will.

In 1993, James Oestreich took stock of Mutter's artistic fortunes: "A decade ago," he wrote in the New York Times, "there was little reason to believe that Ms. Mutter would develop much beyond her gorgeous purity of sound to achieve thoughtful musicianship. Now . . . the 30-year-old fiddler continues to evolve at an astonishing rate." As to determination, in her straightforward manner, she says, "I'm just not the type who will leave everything up to the moment." And, in another conversation: "Sometimes you get great art by accident. But I am not that type of musician."

Hardly. In her early 20s, she famously walked out of a rehearsal with conductor Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic, and canceled their concerts because he refused to accommodate her tempos. (The legendary conductor was booed when he walked on stage that night.) More recently, when a new composition she commissioned turned out sounding as though it were "written by accident--'bloop bloop' here and 'blip blip' there"--Mutter refused to perform it.

And, even though she has been devoted to music since she was 6, her commitment actually seems to be deepening. Pianist Lambert Orkis has been Mutter's accompanist since 1988, when cellist Mstislav Rostropovich recommended him to her. Speaking from his teaching studio in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks ago, Orkis recalled that when Mutter first worked with him, she approached their joint preparations the same way as Rostropovich--rehearsals a couple of days before the first concert were considered plenty of time.

But now, says Orkis, he and Mutter start rehearsing their programs years in advance. And even if they've performed a piece 26 times, they'll have a full rehearsal in the hall before each concert.

When Mutter went on "vacation" last summer, the score of the Brahms' Violin Concerto, which she has been playing since she was a teenager, was in her suitcase. "I'm really restudying it, not just replaying it," she emphasizes. "Going back to it again and again is really what keeps it very fresh. Sometimes you find new phrasings or even a fingering that gives a different color. Or you find, 'My God, here's a subito piano that I never did that brings out a voice in the orchestra,' and then you feel like a complete idiot because all these years you have completely overlooked it! But that's how life is; as long as you find something new it's fine. It must be terrible if you're always biting your tail like a dog!"

In Orkis' phrase, she has retained her "joy in the music and the wonder of discovery." She prefers live recording--especially of recital repertory--to capture the one-time interaction with a particular audience. She refuses to sign an exclusive contract with any record company because she dislikes the commitment, years in advance, to a specific number of recordings. "It's so sterile, so police-like," she says.

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