Oh, my. At first I thought I was merely hearing things. And then I listened again, and again, and sadly confirmed that the embarrassing mistakes and temporal oddities were really there.
The German violinist, Anne-Sophie Mutter, only one of today's fantastic performers, is not to blame, though. I love her thrilling, passionate and colorful interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto here. I much prefer her warmer yet no less technically proficient playing over that of even the legendary Jascha Heifetz. Those kind few who are familiar with my previous writings on classical music know that a deep passion emerging from the music is what I seek above all. But it is the great Herbert von Karajan who, I'm afraid, has gone beyond what is acceptable in terms of missteps here.
Wake Up, M. Karajan, Wake Up!
This is a live performance by Mutter on violin, with Herbert von Karajan directing the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic), recorded on 15 August 1988, and released under the normally outstanding Deutsche Grammophon label. But it couldn't be less lively, as far as the orchestra is concerned.
First of all, there is the somewhat insipid, unenthusiastic tone of the orchestra here, especially in the slower sections. In the first movement, for instance, the orchestra seems to be sleepwalking, particularly about seven-and-a-half minutes in. Karajan inexplicably drags his feet here, and doesn't seem able to rouse the Philharmoniker out of their stupor in many places, even in subsequent movements. This annoying flaw stands out even more because of the contrasting excitement generated by Mutter and her violin. And then there are also a few places where the strings and horns are distinctively off-key, which really gets my goat. I don't know...was it the phase of the moon at the time? The pull of the tides?... that caused such somnolence and ill-tunings on the part of the Vienna Philharmonic?
The second movement suffers from a similar weakness, entering with a colorless playing by the horn section. Mutter also begins in a bit too muted fashion for me, and is almost imperceptively a tad off-key at first, but quickly proceeds to slay you with her fluid, moving sound shortly afterwards. The rest of the piece is more tolerable, even, occasionally, inspired.
Those subtle and glaring negative features aside, I would still recommend this disc for the glorious experience of listening to the terrific Mutter. I've only recently become acquainted with her recordings, and have easily succumbed to her magical playing.
Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, and Others.
Three of the most famous and frequently played violin concertos also happen to be some of my favorites in classical music (besides the Tchaikovsky, there's also the Mendelssohn and the Beethoven violin concertos, splendid works all). I can trace my love affair with them, strangely enough, to a particularly fierce bout of influenza in my teen years, during which I was driven to playing cassettes of these three concertos endlessly. And I mean endlessly, just flipping the cassettes over again and again through those miserable hours until kind sleep finally came to take away the terrible aches plaguing my head and body. There's nothing like fever-pitch, passionate classical music to get one through a deliriously febrile episode or two. It seems to work for me.
Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky's tempestuous and profoundly moving violin concerto is one heckuva notorious piece, tackled successfully only by truly gifted performers. The composer wrote it in 1878, during his recovery after the collapse of his disastrous marriage to one of his pupils. He dedicated it to Leopold Auer, who was honored by that gesture, and who decided that the composition was unsuitable for the violin, wanting to make some changes to it, but never did. Tchaikovsky removed the dedication and the work earned the reputation of being "unplayable." The young violinist, Alfred Brodsky, finally premiered it with the Vienna Philharmonic on December 14, 1881, during which it received more harsh words than an enthusiastic welcome from the critics (as is common with many premieres of virtuosic compositions), with the most famous description of it stating that
"The violin is no longer played, but torn apart, pounded black and blue...."*
Well, today this work is among the most beloved, if still one of the most challenging, showpieces in the violin repertoire.
Heifetz and Anne-Sophie Mutter.
As for those violin concertos on cassettes, they were all from the older generation of violinists, included Zino Francescatti and others; none were Heifetz. I only learned of Heifetz much later.
While I do find the great Jascha Heifetz's playing to be technically brilliant, flawless and phenomenal, it somehow leaves me cold (yeah, I speak blasphemy here to violinists! What do I know, never having even had the instrument in my hands!). Mutter, on the other hand, might not be as technically amazing, but her playing exudes a more colorful, nuanced and human interpretation of the music. The pure, silvery tone she produces on her Stradivarius in the more intense, high-pitched passages as well as her fiery, high-energy phrases only pierce the heart and stir the soul, while her effortless runs simply amaze. In certain sections, she strikes the strings with her bow rather harshly, with seemingly more vigor than in the usual manner. She also makes greater use of the rubato style of playing throughout, in which she stretches or compresses the notes and measures, not strictly adhering to their respective time signatures. Her louder forte and softer piano sections are equally effective in conveying Mutter's depth of feeling. All these allow for a more personal and deeply affecting interpretation of this tremendously difficult work, which is just dandy by me.
Just a Brief Biographical Note.
Mutter (b. 1963) learned to play the violin at age 5, and even at that young age already knew that the violin would be the musical instrument that would define her life. It was in 1977 that she debuted with Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Festival, and this was followed a year later by her debut in Berlin with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmoniker. Their close musical collaboration would span many fruitful years. Mutter, who has concertized and recorded much of the standard classical works to great success, has in the last few years begun to champion more contemporary music, a couple of which were actually written for her. I haven't personally sampled these works yet, as there is already much to be explored just in the catalogue of her "usual" classical recordings.
Although this live recording leaves something to be desired, Mutter's masterful performance is simply too good to ignore here. I can still recommend it for that very good reason. However, you'll just have to try to ignore Karajan and the Wiener Philharmoniker's flawed performance, if you can. My REAL rating is just three-and-a-half stars (out of five), owing almost exclusively to Anne-Sophie Mutter and her fine violin playing.