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Laurie Niles interview with Anne-Sophie Mutter

February 3, 2009 at 5:33 PM

When we last spoke with Anne-Sophie Mutter here at, she was championing her recording of a dark and contemporary work, but this month we find her surrounded by pink petals on the cover of a new Mendelssohn CD and ready for a birthday party.

Anne-Sophie Mutter
© Anja Frers / Deutsche Grammophon

Felix Mendelssohn's birthday, that is: today marks the 200th anniversary of his birth.

What makes it a bit more interesting is the fact that the German violinist has had something of a journey with the Mendelssohn; it was one of the concerti that made her fall in love with the violin, listening to a recording of Yehudi Menuhin with Furtwangler as a child, she said. It also was the first major concerto Mutter played with orchestra at age 11, and she recorded it in 1980 with the Berliner Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan.

Somewhere along the way she dropped the piece; she didn't play it for more than 10 years.

On Monday, from her hotel room in New York, Mutter talked with me about what made her return to the Mendelssohn and how the concerto has changed for her. This week Anne-Sophie Mutter will be performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, with Kurt Masur conducting.

Laurie: Your performed this piece back when you were 11, made a recording of it, and then took a long hiatus from it, what was it that convinced you to go back to it?

Anne-Sophie: It started totally harmlessly, it was Kurt Masur's 80th birthday. We had been discussing Mendelssohn, the composer, for many years. It popped up in all of our conversations about music because he knew that I didn't play his concerto anymore. I did play some of the chamber music, but the Violin Concerto was kind of erased from my map. So (Masur) was talking about the great oratorios, the youth symphonies – totally passionate about it. He has been such an advocate of Mendelssohn's music all these years.

For his 80th birthday, he pretended that his only wish was that I play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with him. Of course, I would do anything for Kurt Masur, even re-study the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto! And what happened was just amazing: it was so fresh for me, so innocently beautiful and waiting to be re-lived. I was actually very taken by it; I just deeply love the piece. There's so much noble beauty and passion in it. Everything that Mendelssohn was as a man, as a human being, is right there.

Laurie: What are some of the things you discovered anew about it? Your perspective must have changed a great deal.

Anne-Sophie: I think that the tempo, the understanding for words like "appassionata." Also Mendelssohn's inner impatience, which he must have inherited from his father. His father was a most extraordinary person. He gave both of his children – also Felix's sister [Fanny] – such an incredibly broad and unique education. When he was 9, 10, 11 years old and composing, Felix had a [private] orchestra to attend every weekend, so every weekend he always had this try-out situation . Can you imagine what that means for a composer, what kind of development he's able to undergo?

So [the music has] this impatience, this kind of fluidity. In the second movement, it has much to do with the Gondolier songs, and [Mendelssohn's] songs altogether, the "Songs Without Words." It has to do with the whole understanding of phrasing and how to bind the musical ideas together, how to group music. This is very important for any composer. You don't play single notes, you have to group them. You have to make sense of the sentence: how you pause, and then where you put the highlights.

I think my approach when I was very young was more super-serious and broad: going for the meaning of every single note, rather than the bigger landscape. And the bigger landscape is very becoming: the fluidity and the exuberance, and let's face it, the very playful virtuosity. Mendelssohn was influenced by great virtuoso violinists like [Eduard] Rietz, for whom he wrote this devilishly difficult octet. Rietz died very early, unfortunately, so one of the reasons why Mendelssohn wrote such great violin music literally died away. Then thank God there was Ferdinand David, for whom he wrote the Violin Concerto as we know. So these virtuosic, playful, spooky last movements are ideas which come back in most of his pieces. It's important to understand the lightness of it all, the elegance. It is a different elegance than Mozart, although I would rather lean backward in the direction of Mozart than in the direction of Brahms [when playing Mendelssohn].

The revelations about the man himself just stunned me. I read more about his life than ever before in my life, and realized what a good human being he was, what a special person he was, what an incredible sense of obligation to society he had, how much he was reaching out: by founding the Leipzig Conservatory. Imagine Schumann was giving piano lessons, and Joachim came from London in order to study at this school, and Mendelssohn was teaching. All the leading positions of the Gewandhaus (Orchestra) had their teaching positions at the Conservatory.

This was not only because Mendelssohn knew that the orchestra would probably not survive if he didn't initiate a next generation of Gewandhaus musicians, but also it was for music education for everybody, including people without great means, because he understood the necessity of music in everybody's life. The whole Bach story, that he was giving benefit concerts on the organ so that the Leipzig people could afford a Bach statue in front of the St. Thomas Church – that's very moving. He was a very unique person. I have always believed, that as a musician you have an obligation not only to change notes to be higher or lower or faster or slower, but you also have to make an impact on society.

It still is true in my opinion that Mendelssohn is underestimated as a composer. Not that there aren't other composers that have been underestimated as well, but now we talk about him. It might have to do with our concept of beauty in music, that very often we are led to believe that something uplifting and inspired – something just like a sun ray – is kind of hollow. It's like in Mozart's life, where a turn around a corner into a minor chord will just break your heart: Mendelssohn's music is very deeply felt, and I don't think that Mendelssohn's life has been easy. I'm very grateful for a composer who left such pure, and highly moving and elevating music behind.

Laurie: Had you played either of the chamber works on your new CD before, the Piano Trio No. 1 in d, Op. 49, or the Violin Sonata in F major?

Anne-Sophie: Yes, I've played many of Mendelssohn's chamber works, though I've never played the Octet, which I'm going to perform with my students shortly. Andre [Previn] and I have played the D minor Trio til we dropped from our chairs; we've just always enjoyed it. Doing the recording was a special treat, at least for me, because Lynn [Harrell] is my favorite cellist around, and Andre's Mendelssohn playing, like his Mozart playing, is just out of this world.

The sonata was another great surprise for me. For a while I felt a little shy recording it, because it wasn't one of the pieces that were printed during Mendelssohn's time; he was still revising it. So it's not really revised to the last note. But as we know, many of Mendelssohn's pieces were not released during his lifetime because he was revising them. But there's nothing you could possibly do better in the F major Sonata from 1838, it's such an incredible piece. The second movement is just killing me, I particularly love the slow movement of the F Major Sonata. Of course, don't make me choose! I hope it's interesting and fun for the listener to see the many faces of Mendelssohn. He was such a great chamber music player and such a passionate chamber music player. Most of the pieces, like the Trio, he had also premiered. I found it incredibly wonderful, as a soloist, to show different roles of the violin in Mendelssohn's work: as a duo part, as a trio, and then of course the big solo piece with all the hurdles.

Laurie: On another subject, I noticed that you'll be giving "In tempus praesens" by Gubaidulina its American debut later this month with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Anne-Sophie: It's such a moving experience. One week ago in Madrid I did the Spanish premiere, and two weeks ago the German premiere and now the American premiere is in just a few weeks. It's one of the great pieces in my life, that's for sure, and it's certainly the most important contemporary piece written in the last 18 years, it just is unexplicably powerful, heart-wrenching and the orchestration is all she does, so intense and unique, her sense for colors and for drama, how she paces drama, the timing of it. The balance between moments of deepest despair and beauty are just breathtaking. Every performance I'm schlepping myself up for these 40 minutes of playing up in the highest register and at the highest intensity – it's a battle, this role of Sofia against society, and especially the role of the violin against the orchestra. It's intense not only physically, but also psychologically; it's really hard to take. Very often I schlep myself off stage and I'm just – I'm done. I cannot speak.

I'm really lucky to have not only all these other tremendous contemporary pieces, but in particular "In tempus praesens." The recording, of course, can never replicate what reality does to you when you hear it in the process of really living through it, it's

Laurie: I find it especially true with contemporary pieces, that seeing it live is a really different experience.

Anne-Sophie: Especially in this piece, because the struggle factor is such an important key to understanding what it's all about. To witness that happening live, it really adds a needed dimension. On the other hand, you hear things on the recording you will never hear live, because the orchestration is so huge. There's only so much the human ear can absorb. And so it's good to go home, and listen to "In tempus praesens," and get something else out of it that you won't get in the performance.

From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on February 3, 2009 at 6:07 PM

Incredible. I wasn't able to properly read this interview yet (and of course I will...) because I'm rushing out the door to hear ...the Mendelssohn concerto. Midori's playing it in Cremona's Ponchielli Theater in less than an hour and a half. And it's his birthday. Talk about coincidences.

PS. Mrs Mutter, I still remember your *every note* of the Beethoven Concerto you played here years back. I remember thinking, "the pianissimo that was heard around the world." Unforgettable.


From Matt Pelikan
Posted on February 3, 2009 at 7:54 PM

What a wonderful, generous interview! We are all fortunate indeed to have such a detailed look into the mind of such a fine musician.

From E. Smith
Posted on February 3, 2009 at 9:24 PM

Yes, this is great, thanks. I heard the very end of an interview with her and some of the new CD on NPR yesterday.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 3, 2009 at 10:09 PM


one of themost interesting interviews I`ve sene in a long time,



From Craig Coleman
Posted on February 3, 2009 at 11:16 PM

Thanks Laurie and Anne-Sophie for sharing this heartfelt conversation with us. It opened my mind more about Mendelssohn than I knew before.


From Anthony Barletta
Posted on February 4, 2009 at 5:38 AM

Go Laurie - another fine interview!  I can't get enough of them!

From Mayra Calvani
Posted on February 4, 2009 at 8:43 PM

It's a real treat to hear the words straight from Anne-Sophie. I had the pleasure of attending one of her concerts here in Brussels. She played the Mozart violin concertos (I think 3 and 5). It was a wonderful performance. Thanks for the interview, Laurie.


From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 4, 2009 at 8:55 PM

Thank you for the kind comments, everyone. Here's a related  NYT article about ASM and Mendelssohn; it describes how Kurt Masur's piano teacher told him to close the windows when he played "Songs Without Words" because of such high anti-semitic sentiment in Germany when he was a child.

From Maurizio Cassandra
Posted on February 5, 2009 at 6:05 PM

Beautiful intervieuw. I just heard a fantastic recording of Mutter's Mozart concertoes and sonatas. Everibody must listen to it. Thank you

From ev E
Posted on February 5, 2009 at 9:42 PM

just saw this concert last night (tribute to mendelssohn, celebrating his 200th birthday) - the program with the ny phil was great! kurt masur, anne-sophie mutter and various soloists (don't remember their names) and the westminster choir. so much talent in one program. we were all blown away.

From John Zeweniuk
Posted on February 6, 2009 at 5:51 AM

My first Ann-Sophie cd was her Bach and Gubaidulina and I love both.  Is it a trend to put an earlier composer with a contemporary or 20th Century music anyways.   I also have a Midori cd Bach and Bartok, which is great.  They're fascinating juxtapositions...

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on February 6, 2009 at 8:06 PM

Another great interview to read!  Thanks Laurie!  

From stephen kelley
Posted on February 7, 2009 at 2:53 AM

Thanks Laurie for your interviews.I resonated with Hilary Hahn's support of a composer's unfettered expression. However it seems Schubert, for one, could write with a select audience of musicians and friends in mind, and available for regular feedback. In Schubert's chamber music performers and listeners are played on by the composer, so an additional level of expression is achieved. 

Steve Kelley

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