It was not the most gentle of baptisms. During her apparently effortless rise to the top of the music profession, German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter had scarcely given a thought to the music of our time. Suddenly here was Paul Sacher, wealthiest and most discerning of European music patrons, telling her he had asked the eminent Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski to write a violin concerto for her. “The commission was already done,” says Mutter, 48, recalling the moment 25 years ago that turned her from queen of the 19th-century violin repertoire into advocate of the new. “It was like, ‘This is the piece, this is the date [for the premiere], and that’s it.’ There was no persuasion. I was speechless.”
Without Sacher’s intervention, Mutter could quite happily have gone on making a lucrative career out of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. They had been the foundation stones of her collaboration with Herbert von Karajan, the powerful Austrian conductor who spotted her as a 13-year-old and placed her in the limelight at Salzburg and Berlin. Mutter, born into a non-musical family at Rheinfelden in south-west Germany, duly imbibed the spirit of the masters under Karajan’s tutelage. Now she was playing the same obedient role with another father-figure. Sacher had commissioned music from Bartók, Stravinsky and other great 20th-century composers, and he was doing so again – exclusively for her.
“I felt excited but also frightened,” she remembers, seated in a conference room at the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation in Munich, from where she carries on Sacher’s work of nurturing young talent and commissioning new music. Not having any models for interpreting Lutoslawski’s piece, Chain II, she “felt so alone with the score. Then I came across two bars in the second movement with the words senza vibrato [without vibrato] written above them. That totally clicked, because I could tell he understood the immensity of the sound colour a violin is capable of producing, and I felt a string in me singing, whose existence I hadn’t been aware of. It was a very poetic moment in my life.”
Since that moment, Mutter has become one of the most persuasive advocates of contemporary music. Audiences reared on the 19th-century concerto repertoire are happy to hear her play unknown pieces, recognising that her distinctive qualities – strong tone, soaring resonance, formidable control – will come through whatever the repertoire.
So it should come as no surprise that her upcoming Artist Portrait series with the London Symphony Orchestra contains more new pieces than old. The music is not exclusively new – she will also play the Tchaikovsky concerto – but it does demonstrate that there are more strings to her bow than some classical music buffs are willing to acknowledge. Her opening programme features Sofia Gubaidulina’s Violin Concerto No 2 “In tempus praesens”, while her second has Lichtes Spiel by Wolfgang Rihm. She returns in February for two concerts with her former husband André Previn – one featuring his new Concerto for Violin and Viola, the other a Piano Trio he wrote for his 80th birthday two years ago. Previn will conduct the first and play piano in the second.
Face to face, she is markedly more engaging than her “glacial goddess” reputation would suggest: the glamour girl portrayed in her carefully controlled marketing material (always off-the-shoulder designer gowns) could almost be a different person. She laughs a lot and speaks English as if it were her mother tongue. Despite her four-year marriage to Previn, which ended in 2006, she has continued to live in Munich with her two children by her first husband, the late Detlef Wunderlich, who was Karajan’s lawyer and, like Previn, around 30 years her senior.
Mutter seems an unlikely champion of the new. The spotless white walls of her foundation’s office are decorated with framed gold and platinum discs of her biggest-selling recordings – all of 19th-century repertoire. The room in which we sit, dominated by a long rectangular table neatly arranged with drinks and nibbles, is more that of a business executive than a creative type. And the art she collects – she mentions Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Gotthard Graubner – is, by her own admission, “old-fashioned”, a word some critics have used to characterise her style of violin-playing.
In conversation, it becomes clear that her over-riding quest is for projects that will expand her artistic horizons. One of these is to take the Szymanowski and Walton concertos into her repertoire. Another is her belated adoption of the lighter baroque bow for Bach, which she says has enabled her to develop a more transparent sound and emphasise the dance character of the faster music. But she remains dismissive of much of the period instrument movement, saying it is “plain wrong” that baroque violinists should not use vibrato.
“If you read Leopold Mozart’s books, he talks about Italian tremolo. Much of what people expected me to take on board [about period style], I already knew.”
As far as commissioning new works is concerned, she says she never asks a composer for favours. “I believe in letting them write what they think is appropriate.” She has only once had to reject a piece she commissioned, she says.
The Gubaidulina concerto, which Sacher commissioned for Mutter before his death in 1999, casts the soloist as Sophia, the figure of divine wisdom, who “is attacked by society and almost crushed – it’s a drama of life and death. All her pieces are very intense, going from quiet and tender moments to hugely orchestrated passages where the soloist has to fight against 100 players. It drives you to the extremes of your possibilities.”
The Rihm, one of Mutter’s own commissions, is a complete contrast. “It’s all about subtlety and transparency – a bit like Mozart.” And the Previn Trio? Is it one of his lighter pieces? “People refer to it as playful but everything André writes is serious. His music has not just tonal beauty but an understanding of instruments and how to let them really shine. It’s a quality rooted in him being a fabulous player himself. His piano writing is fiendishly difficult. ”
She says the Brahms, Sibelius or Tchaikovsky concertos are “not very difficult – these pieces leave room for the big gesture”. The real challenge is Beethoven and Mozart, “because the music is shaved of all unnecessary effect. They are the perfect balance between ratio and eros [proportion and emotion]. It’s like a Miró or a Klee: if one segment is not perfectly controlled, it disrupts the whole picture.”
This is one of several instances in our conversation where Mutter uses the visual arts to make a musical point. She quotes Monet’s bon mot about wanting to paint not the object but what goes on between the object and the eye of the beholder. “That’s very close to my understanding of music. When friends ask me why I am studying Beethoven yet again, I ask them why Monet spent half his life painting water lilies, why the trees in the Blue Rider group paintings are not always green. There are many ways of looking at what we see. Beethoven can be different today from what he was yesterday.”
The London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘UBS Soundscapes: Artist Portrait’ series with Anne-Sophie Mutter begins on November 27 at the Barbican, London, www.lso.co.uk