Arts & Events

Anne-Sophie Mutter Plays Brahms at Davies Hall

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday March 06, 2015 - 04:48:00 PM

Anne-Sophie Mutter returned to San Francisco for four performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D-Major, Thursday-Sunday, February 26-March 1, with the San Francisco Symphony. To hear Mutter play this Brahms concerto 33 years after her famous recording of it when, as a young teenager, she teamed up with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, offers a rare opportunity to examine how an artist’s interpretation changes over time. Interestingly, the youthful Anne-Sophie Mutter’s reading of the Brahms concerto under von Karajan turns out to be mellower, more graceful and balanced than her mature inter-pretation under Michael Tilson Thomas, which latter is hard-edged to the point of being almost strident. 

With von Karajan in 1982, Mutter gave us Brahms the classical composer, with only a subtle hint of the Romantic. Now, with Thomas, she gives us the full-blown Romantic Brahms, redolent of Sturm und Drang. This is not to say, however, that Mutter’s lustrous tone has lost any of its fullness. It’s just that she now attacks the difficult double-stop passages Brahms wrote for solo violin with a ferocity that is awesome to behold.  

Brahms’s Violin Concerto begins with a 100-measure orchestral introduction, whose first five notes, played by cellos, violas, bassoons and horns, offer the primary material out of which the whole first movement – and much of the entire concerto – will develop. The full orchestra then takes up this lyrical theme, works it out, and, following a D-major crescendo, transitions into the tender second theme, introduced by the oboe and repeated by the violins. Here too the orchestra begins in a relaxed, lyrical vein, then gradually builds up the tension, this time with jabbing strings which reach a peak then fall away, creating a space for the dramatic entry of the violin soloist.  

Anne-Sophie Mutter demonstrated right from her first notes that she was in full attack mode, aggressively playing her opening passage as if she were a fiery Gypsy fiddler. The orchestra remained subdued as the soloist tackled the first theme in a minor key, developed it, modulated it to the tonic major key, and lyrically reprised the work’s opening theme and its transition to the second theme. A bit later, a third theme was introduced -- a graceful ballad that eventually gave way to an elaborate cadenza.  

This cadenza was written by Brahms’s friend and counselor, violinist Joseph Joachim, who played the première of this work, with Brahms conducting, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on January 1, 1879. In Anne-Sophie Mutter’s 1982 recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, she played the Joachim cadenza very beautifully. Now, in her San Francisco appearances, she attacks this cadenza equally beautifully, but with a ferocious, hard-edged virtuosity that is almost frightening. 

The second movement, marked Adagio, opens with an idyllic song, first heard in the oboe, gorgeously played by Mingjia Liu, with woodwinds and horns providing harmonic texture. When the solo violin enters, it plays a variant of this lovely melody, elegantly supported by the orchestra. A second soulful melody is introduced by the soloist, adding to the magical lyricism of this movement. Finally, the first theme returns in the oboe against octaves in the violins. Now the soloist takes it up against pizzicato strings as the movement comes to a serene close. 

The third and final movement is in rondo in form, featuring a Hungarian Gypsy dance. Anne-Sophie Mutter introduces the dance theme with exciting double-stops; and the orchestra soon embraces this Gypsy theme. When a second theme is heard, it is equally vigorous and forceful. The development of these two themes is given robust treatment by both solo violin and orchestra, culminating in a brisk march-like coda that closes this work. 

All told, this was a scintillating if decidedly hard-edged interpretation of Brahms’s well-loved Violin Concerto offered by soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. (Incidentally, for Sunday’s concert, Anne-Sophie Mutter passes the soloist’s role to one of her protégés, South Korean violinist Ye-Eun Choi,) 

The brief work that opened the program was The Light That Fills the World by minimalist composer John Luther Adams (not to be confused with Berkeley’s John Adams). After introducing this piece with a few words, Michael Tilson Thomas turned over the podium to young Christian Baldini, who conducted The Light That Fills the World. This 13-minute piece is scored for contrabassoon, marimba, two basses, vibraphone, violin, and portative organ. In this work, John Luther Adams, who lives outside Fairbanks, Alaska, evokes the Alaskan landscape in late winter and early spring, when snow still covers the ground but is greeted by new light after the darkness of winter. The work offers no melodies or meters, but instead proceeds by subtle oscillations provided by marimba and vibraphone over a drone-like accompaniment by the strings and organ. The Light That Fills the World was a pleasant if somewhat moody opener for this program. 

After intermission, Michael Tilson Thomas returned to the podium to conduct Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major, nicknamed the “Spring” Symphony. This enormously popular symphony was given a brilliant reading by Thomas and the orchestra. Written in a month, and performed for the first time only a month later on March 31, 1841, by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, this work opens with a famous fanfare of horns. At Leipzig, a however, the musicians were not yet using the newly introduced horns with valves, so Schumann rewrote the opening passages to accommodate the orchestra’s valveless horns. This fanfare is actually a double-fanfare, offering a repeated summons welcoming the anticipated coming of spring.  

However, winter struggles on in the orchestra’s dramatic plunge to a D-Minor, following which a fierce tremolando in the violas suggests the stormy last gasps of winter. The first movement transitions to an Allegro section marked molto vivace; and indeed the tempo quickly accelerates. The movement’s first theme is explored, but Schumann also introduces a plaintive melody for oboe. The recap-itulation continues the quick tempo, but the double fanfare returns in its original Andante tempo. Then a gentle song is heard, introducing a tender mood that foreshadows the second movement. 

Marked Larghetto, the second movement is introduced by a lovely song-like melody heard in the first violins, with syncopated accompaniment in the second violins and violas. When the cellos take up this melody, they are backed by slightly off-the-beat woodwind punctuations. At this movement’s close, the trombones enter pianissimo with a coda that anticipates the next movement. 

The famous Scherzo opens with the same theme just played by the trombones now translated into an energetic dance theme, with strongly accented jabbing motifs. These motifs are frequently repeated throughout the two trios that make up this Scherzo movement. They offer a kind of ‘signature’ to this movement and to this symphony as a whole. The final movement opens with full orchestra offering a first theme that recalls a babbling brook. The second theme darkens the mood by shifting to a minor key; but things brighten again when Schumann introduces a plaintive song for oboe, distant horn calls, and, finally, sweet birdcalls for the flute. A joyful coda brings this work to a close that musically embodies the optimistic, hopeful mood of spring. Under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony was far more than just a breath of fresh air; it was a revelation of Schumann’s very personal genius as a symphonic composer.