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Anne-Sophie Mutter Soars with Penderecki Sonata

March 5, 2018

Green Music Center

After two-thirds of a solid but conventional recital of Bach and Brahms, you might expect violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter to conclude with the third B of that ancient Germanic triumvirate; but her final selection veered radically forward to another plosive: P. As in Penderecki, who hails from Poland and is still very much alive. Mutter’s deviation from the norm transformed a good March 2 performance at the Green Music Center into a riveting musical experience.

Krzysztof Penderecki, born in 1933, has a long association with Mutter, and he has dedicated several compositions to her, including a violin concerto, a duo concertante, La Follia for solo violin, and a violin sonata — the same one that concluded her formal program (there was an encore).

The sonata begins innocently enough with a series of half-step, two-note phrases played pizzicato. The plucked phrases are gradually interspersed with their bowed counterparts, and then the piano accompaniment, revealing an underlying six-note pattern that evolves into a virtuosic outpouring of brash melodies and relentless bass in the scherzando second movement. The melodic line is at times reminiscent of show tunes from The Beggar’s Opera or of a Shostakovich string quartet, but Penderecki’s own inventiveness rules the day, as did Mutter’s stellar playing, along with that of her pianist, Lambert Orkis.

Cast in five movements, the sonata’s center is a Notturno (night) movement dominated again by half-steps and sotto voce (hushed) passages. Mutter can play as loudly as she wants, but she is particularly compelling when playing sotto voce, with each note hanging by a thread. The climax of the Notturno arrived with a series of long descending chromatic lines, all of which Mutter aced with style and elegance.

The concluding movements mirrored the first two, with impossibly fast passages relieved by ethereal harmonics. At first, the music seemed like one flourish after another, but Mutter and Orkis pulled the disparate elements together and began heading somewhere, their arrival marked by a splendid cluster chord from Orkis. That harmonic convergence was still resonating when Mutter headed upward again, reaching the violin’s highest note in perfect tune and clarity. Of such performances are legends made.

Less impressive were the preceding efforts: Brahms’s Sonata No. 2 and Bach’s Partita No. 2, of Chaconne fame. In the Brahms, Mutter and Orkis played admirably, but they lacked spark. Orkis’s piano lid was fully open, leading to occasional balance problems where Orkis drowned out Mutter’s softer passages. Mutter bowed Brahms’s flowing lines with unerring intonation, fully connected notes and judicious vibrato. As in the Penderecki, she excelled in the softer sections, unveiling sweet melodic lines with grace and charm.

The high point occurred in the opening bars of the final movement, which Mutter played exclusively on her lowest string, a technique known as sul G. The effect was almost hypnotic, showcasing the wonderfully deep sound of her instrument and her splendid dexterity. The rest of the sonata was entrancing, but not quite as inspiring.

The Chaconne of Bach’s second partita is considered the ultimate showcase for solo violin, so expectations for Mutter were high. Before you get to the Chaconne, however, you have to fiddle your way through four other demanding dance movements, each with its own set of challenges.

Mutter seemed keenly aware of what lay before her, but she jumped right into the opening Allemande without even pausing for air. This abrupt opening led to an uneasy marriage of gorgeous sound and rushed tempi. Mutter quickened the pace even more in the subsequent Courante, whose blistering speed transformed the individual notes into waves of sound. The technique was awesome, but what was the rush?

Mutter settled down a tad in the stately Sarabande, showcasing her command of in-tune double and triple stops. She played much of the dance over the fingerboard, which brought down the volume; but lightning and thunder returned in the penultimate dance, a boisterous Gigue. Here Mutter’s bow flew straight between the fingerboard and the bridge, generating maximum sound.

One felt exhausted by the time the chaconne arrived, but again Mutter forged ahead with little pause. The opening was majestic, but the ensuing phrases needed more room to breathe. Many passages that could have been slurred were played with separate bows, yielding a slightly mechanical effect. Near the middle of the Chaconne, however, Mutter finally slowed down, producing a remarkable transformation in sound and musicality. Instead of speeding past the notes, she let them ring out, as in the series of harmonics toward the Chaconne’s end. A truly spine-tingling moment arrived when Mutter spun a virtual drone on the E string while playing the Chaconne’s glorious theme on the lower strings. If only the rest of the partita had been so transcendent.

Steve Osborn, a children's writer by day, moonlights as a violist and music critic.