With Wiener Philarmoniker
All Music Guide
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Some violinists impress by a dazzling technique, as flawless and polished as a diamond. Some impress by the intensity of their vision, their genius for saying something fresh with a musical phrase that the listener may have heard a thousand times before. Others by their daring, their willingness to push themselves beyond the boundaries of safety - perhaps by choosing an audacious tempo, or by producing some extraordinary and startling tone-colour. Anne-Sophie Mutter does all this and more. Just turned 30, she has been holding the world's music-lovers mesmerized for 17 years, since she was "discovered" as a child prodigy by Herbert von Karajan. Many child prodigies stay exactly that: technically brilliant phenomena who lack the emotional maturity to develop into rounded adult virtuosos. Not so Mutter. Three years ago, at the Barbican Hall in London, she gave as comprehensive a demonstration of the violinist's art as can ever have been devised. In the course of a week she played no fewer than seven major concertos and seven big chamber pieces - and not just Brahms and Tchaikovsky standards, either. Integral to her artistry is the belief that she should also play the music of living composers; she herself has commissioned many works. This, then, is a serious artist endowed with an astonishing musical intelligence and an admirable sense of purpose. But there is another side to Mutter. Throughout history, violinists have cherished their power to enthral audiences through sheer devilry: through mercurial fingers, unbelievable treble-stopping, flashing bow, orthe sensuous glissando up the G string. Mutter understands how vital it is that the virtuoso violinist also plays the role of the showman. Gathered together Here is music that Mutter might play as encores after an intense recital or concerto programme. Several were written by composers who were themselves virtuoso violinists, and whose very intention was to test the technical mettle of all who dared to attempt a performance. For some violinists, simply playing the notes would be enough. But being Mutter, these pieces are interpreted with as much care a,nd intelligence as the most profound concerto. This may be a feast of lollipops, then, but the flavours are well varied. Two of the works -perhaps the two that are most obviously show-stoppers - are by Pablo de Sarasate, the 19th-century Spanish violin virtuoso. He was considered one of the great violinists of his day, and Bruch, Saint-Saens and Dvorak were among those who wrote major pieces for him. But he also wrote more than 50 pieces for himself, of which the two recorded here are possibly the best known: the Zigeunerweisen op. 20, which was written in 1878; and the ingenious and technically fiendish "Carmen" Fantasy op. 25. The latter was composed around 1883, when Bizet's great opera, after its disastrous premiere-run eight years earlier, had been triumphantly revived in Paris.
In much the same flamboyant manner, though written 40 years later, is Maurice Ravel's brilliant showpiece Tzigane. Written for the Hungarian virtuoso Jelly d'Aranyi, it was styled very much in the "Hungarian gypsy rhapsody" manner and took as its specific model Paganini's 24 Caprices. Two more, rather gentler, French pieces are included on this recording. Gabriel Faure's lovely, simple Berceuse in D major, op. 16 was written in 1879, a few years after the composer had finished his masterly First Violin Sonata. And in much the same vein of lyrical sweetness is the Meditation from Jules Massenet's opera ThaTs, first performed in Paris in 1894. The opera, an ancient Egyptian affair concerning a courtesan who renounces carnal love for the spiritual variety, has not worn well, but this "symphonic intermezzo" from Act II - in essence an extended violin solo over lapping harps - has become one of the best-loved tunes from French opera. Finally, works by two other virtuoso violinist-composers from different eras. Henryk Wieniawski was one of 19th-century music's most colourful figures: one of a family of Polish musicians (his pianist brother accompanied him on recital tours), he managed, in a brief but eventful life, to tour the world from Moscow to San Francisco, to lose a fortune on the American stock exchange, and to die penniless at the age of 44. He was by all accounts a magnificent player, and his 30 published compositions indicate how much he developed the craft of violin-playing. The Legende in G minor, op. 17 has a romantic history. Wieniawski visited England for concerts in 1859 and fell in love with an English girl, Isabella Hampton, whom he married the following year. The Legende, written in that year, is dedicated to her. A marvellous "legend" also surrounds Giuseppe Tartini's "Devil's Trill" Sonata. How much of it to believe is a matter of personal choice. Tartini, seven years younger than Bach and Handel, was a great teacher of violin in Padua, and he wrote a large number of sonatas for the instrument. The story goes that he composed the "Devil's Trill" Sonata while hiding in a monastery, having fled there after a clandestine marriage to a pupil. During the night he dreamt that he had entered into a contract with the Devil, who played him an exquisite violin sonata. On awakening, Tartini found he had forgotten the sonata, so he supposedly wrote this one in imitation of the Devil's. The "devil's trills" themselves are the extraordinary passages in the final movement, where the soloist is required to trill on one string while executing swift passage-work on another. Leopold Mozart, no slouch on the violin, said of the passages that "no little industry is required" to master them. That, you may feel, is an understatement.