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A Sibelius Violin Concerto to Make Your Hair Stand on End (in a Good Way)

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Mutter's usual expressive reading comes through here, helped by André Previn and the Staatskapelle Dresden, and overcomes the slight technical flaw in the concerto's third movement.

Like the initial fates of many daring, virtuosic pieces so popular in the violin repertoire today, Jean Sibelius' (1865 - 1957) Violin Concerto (in D Minor, op. 47)  received a negative reception at its premiere on 8 February 1904, prompting the Finnish composer to make immediate changes to the work. It was in 1905 that it finally met with acceptance among critics (bah, who needs them, really?). The conductor then? None other than Richard Strauss. Sibelius was an accomplished violinist himself, unlike some composers of other frequently played violin works such as Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Here Sibelius created a piece more technically suited to the violin rather than, say, the devilishly challenging one that poor Tchaikovsky penned. That isn't to say, though, that this concerto makes no technically virtuosic demands of the violinist. Au contraire, mon frère.

I can compare Anne-Sophie Mutter's 1995 recording only to the legendary Jascha Heifetz version made in 1959, my only CDs of the work. Heifetz's phenomenal but sterile playing still does nothing for me emotionally (so said the heathen/philistine/ignoramus!). Mutter, on the other hand, totally engages me in the music even during my sometimes absentminded listening, such as while when typing, cleaning, cooking or even reading. She brings a deeply personal reading to every work, something that draws me again and again to her versions of classical pieces for the violin.

Learning to hear the profound beauty in this musically complex concerto entailed several spins of the disc, however. Only when I could grasp the work's overall structure, rhythm and pace did its wondrous qualities finally show themselves, not unlike my experience with the exquisite Brahms violin concerto.   

First Movement: Allegro moderato.

You can barely hear the first few bars of the opening movement. There are the ghostly, rapidly repeated twin notes played by the Staatskappelle Dresden, directed by maestro André Previn (who, by the way, recently became Mr. Mutter. Or rather, that Ms. Mutter became Mrs. Previn number ?. At any rate, the event certainly made big headlines in the classical music world. I'll leave the inevitable speculation and psychiatric analysis to your infinitely more probing minds).

Mutter slips in from on high, gradually turning up the volume. Initially one can hear very little vibrato, as she simply runs the bow across the bare strings (with fingers pressed down upon the strings sans wrist-rocking). Eliminating the vibrato effect gives the notes a starker, sharper sound, rather effective in conveying the bleakness of the cold, gray and wintery landscape of Sibelius' homeland.  From hereon, it's an emotional rollercoaster ride through the chilly, snow-laden world of Finland (which must be awfully cold, being so close to the North Pole as it is). A subtle but dramatic key shift at about a minute and a half and your interest jumps even higher, although the piece already holds you in its grasp from the outset. The delicate wistfulness borders on sadness at times, and I do love it so, even if I detest cold and desolation like the devil (am I a masochist? uhm, only when it comes to music).

An interesting technical note came to my attention recently: these initial passages as written by Sibelius require the violinist to play them in an unusually high position on the G string (no, not that one), which evokes the powerful, aching desperation Sibelius sought to create, a feeling that could not be similarly produced by playing the same notes on a more "reasonable" string.

Well, even before the first two minutes are over, Mutter has already grabbed tightly at my emotions and held them hostage, ready to flee with them to distant worlds, mysterious and unknown. Resistance is useless.   

There's a brief virtuosic phrase at the third minute that climaxes in the upper reaches, resolving somewhat into the deep, comforting sounds of cellos, basses, and then woodwinds. Mutter returns on a low note, skipping onto a stretch of sweeping legatos (connected notes), then remaining precariously suspended in mid-air very briefly, as you anticipate the precipitous plunge in what I consider to be the movement's first real "high." 

A meditative bit follows, and a trill. Assertive cellos and winds elbow their way in, allowing the soloist a brief rest. Mellow flutes relax the mood, and the strings and brasses take over. Things slow down to a crawl, and soon the basses pave the way for the violin's return, as Mutter runs through a series of swift ascents and descents with the fleetness of a hawk. And all these just within the first eight minutes!

Mutter goes through a fantastic variety of playing techniques, rhythms, moods and intensities in just this first movement. She approaches the finale with harsh, shivery sounds that are nearly frantic in their race to the top, ending on a whistly and high-pitched note. Paradoxically, I seem to detect an inner joy in this oddly compelling movement, and Sibelius'efforts to hold it in check do not completely conceal the optimistic blush to the grayish melodies.
Second Movement: Adagio di molto.

Cool woodwinds introduce this movement and, in contrast to the first, Mutter comes in ready with your standard vibrato. She diminishes the effect at the start and end of certain phrases, while maintaining a seamless legato transition between the notes. In a more reflective section that is yet to come, the vibration of the strings is almost palpable--a full, well-rounded, throbbing that you can feel in your bones.

Mutter lingers momentarily in the higher octaves, producing those pure, liquid tones with ease, as matters slowly escalate, only to dip suddenly, with softly pulsing ups and downs leading to a brief semi-climax, decelerating to a hushed, vibrato-less conclusion.    

Slightly Imperfectly Recorded Third Movement: Allegro.

A soft, galloping rhythm is initially laid down by the cellos. Mutter makes short work of the more carefree (relatively to the rest of the piece) yet still technically challenging intervals that follow. However, this is where those annoying elements reveal themselves: at a minute-and-a-half, and again at four minutes-and-a-half, there is a strange, repetitive, harsh, honking, piercing, mid-pitched noise shooting out of the left speaker. A wild guess, but it may simply reflect an incorrect placement of the microphone that unintentionally (?) gives the brass section more emphasis than it deserves. Yet these are trivial, if noticeable technical flaws that fail to ruin the rest of this superb recording.  

For a closing movement, I find this fairly calm and subdued compared to the average final movements. Although it evokes a more celebratory mood, the tempo really picks up only near the end.

Well, compared to Heifetz, Mutter seems to draw out some of the notes a bit more, adding greater depth and color to each with her judicious use of rubato (aka, elasticity of notes), vibrato, and many other playing tricks and techniques. No doubt that Heifetz is technically brilliant, but he simply rushes through the piece too easily for my taste, and invests little heart and soul in the playing. I say (blasphemy! blasphemy!or, mea culpa!), give me a Mutter disc anytime over one by the highly acclaimed god called Heifetz. Of course, the simple matter of differing individual tastes has to be taken into account here.  Or, there's simply no accounting for taste.

LEFT: André Previn with Mutter (years before their recent marriage!)

For his part, André Previn leads the Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra admirably, never overpowering the soloist, lagging behind nor moving ahead of her. It's a perfect match between soloist and orchestra (hmm, prophetic words, perhaps, since the original incarnation of this piece was written over a year ago), and director Previn deserves credit for maintaining just the right tempo and volume to support Mutter's performance.

Brief Notes on the Serenades no. 1 and 2, and Humoresque no. 1.

More Sibelius works await in the remaining tracks, none of which I would dismiss as fillers, either. Serenades no. 1 and 2 and Humoresque no. 1 are all marked by similarly introspective moods. Even the series of lively passages at the Humoresque's three minute point nevertheless carries a darkish atmosphere that I notice in all the selections on this CD. (Must really be those endless winters!) Hear for yourself once more the clear yet vibrant tones Mutter creates in every piece, whether slow or fast, piano (soft) or forte (loud), glissando (sliding), or staccato (disconnected). With that felicitious meeting between bow and strings, Mutter creates an electrifying, captivating sound that you'll find difficult to ignore.

Personal Preference: Why Mutter?

Mutter's playing here, as in many of her recordings I've had the pleasure to hear, speaks directly from the heart. She appears to draw from deep, personal reserves of emotion for all these performances. That amazing technical virtuosity (already astounding in itself) when married to a thoughtful and expressive reading is well-nigh impossible to resist. Played indifferently, I doubt if these Sibelius pieces would ever turn my head, but Mutter has succeeded in sparking a curiosity about these less famous works.   

Some may balk precisely at her very personal, even, heavens!--Romantic--take on the pieces, but I tend to seek out the interpretation that coincides with my own sensibility--it's got to get me in the gut, so to speak, and a performer's musicality derives from the force of the personality that emerges through the playing. 

Of course, I can't speak to the talent of numerous other young violinists out there, and my perspective for comparison is necessarily limited. Taken on her own terms, and how I instinctively respond to her  playing, Mutter's interpretations work for the most part for me. I have no hesitation in recommending this particular recording of the Sibelius violin concerto, especially if you have a more passionate bent. And if you're the least bit curious by now, you may want to give her discs a try. (The Mendelssohn or Beethoven may be easier to like, although you never know till you hear it yourself)   


CD Notes:

JEAN SIBELIUS (1865 - 1957)

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, op. 47 (31'36)

1. Allegro moderato (15'55)

2. Adagio di molto (8'26)

3. Allegro, ma non tanto (7'15)

4. Serenade no. 1 in D major, op. 69a (6'28) Andante assai

5. Serenade no. 2 in G minor, op 69b (6'57) Lento assai

6. Humoresque no. 1 in D minor, op. 87 no. 1 for Violin and Orchestra (3'33) Commodo


Staatskapelle Dresden


Deutsche Grammophon 447 895 2 © 1995

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