Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Dvořák’s Violin Concerto

09 Feb 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Manfred Honeck

Anne-Sophie Mutter

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, op. 53 (37 min.)

    Anne-Sophie Mutter Violin

  • Witold Lutosławski
    Concerto for orchestra (34 min.)

  • free

    Manfred Honeck in conversation with Stephan Koncz (19 min.)

To this day, guest appearances by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Berliner Philharmoniker are an event. After all, there is no other musician of our time whose career has been more closely linked with the orchestra. In early February 2013, the violinist performed Dvořák’s Violin Concerto at the Philharmonie. 

It was a sensation when the just 13-year-old Anne-Sophie Mutter performed Mozart’s G major Concerto at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival under the direction of Herbert von Karajan in 1977. “She played gorgeously, and above all, not at all like a child prodigy,” raved the reviewer in Die Welt. This described concisely the phenomenon that was Mutter: a musician, whose youthful appearance contrasted with incredible technique and artistic maturity. And then there was, and of course still is, her tone which reveals itself in this Dvořák performance: velvety and rich while still fresh and flexible, unspeakably beautiful but never aiming for superficial gloss.

In the second part of the concert, all attention is on the man at the conductor’s desk: Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in this concert. He presents one of the most powerful and diverse compositions of the 20th century: Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Folk Music and Avant Garde

Music by Antonín Dvořák and Witold Lutosławski

“Not a trace of artificiality or contrivance”: Antonín Dvořák

“Anyone who has followed the development of contemporary music for 30 years or more will, with the passing years, have been ever more forcibly struck by a peculiarly melancholy realization, namely that of how extraordinarily rare is a fresh and intact talent … The men who at present awaken the greatest interest in the sphere of music are so terribly serious. We must study them, and after studying them must buy a revolver in order to defend our opinion of them. I cannot help thinking how splendid it would be if a musician should appear once again about whom we should think as little of quarrelling as about spring.” Many a music lover in our own day would heartily concur with these lines. But from the wording and humour of this grievance against “contemporary” music, one may already suspect that it was not written by a contemporary of ours. In fact it appeared on 15 November 1878 in the Berlin Nation-Zeitung after the critic Louis Ehlert had made the acquaintance of two compositions by the then still largely unknown Antonín Dvořák. Ehlert rhapsodised: “A divine naturalness flows through this music … Not a trace of artificiality or contrivance.”

Had Ehlert been present at the world premiere of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor op. 53 in Prague on 14 October 1883, he would have found passages from his article, which appeared five years earlier, to be prophetic. “There is no question here of some kind of imitation” – that is how he characterised Dvořák’s style, and even the Violin Concerto, its classical three-movement layout notwithstanding, has new and individual elements. Like Felix Mendelssohn before him, Dvořák dispenses with an orchestral exposition in the opening movement and goes straight to the heart of the concertante events. But how differently he fashions the dialogue between the symphonically deployed orchestra and the solo instrument – and how “effectively and colourfully everything is arranged”. Although there are places, like the first movement’s truncated recapitulation that leads without break into the Adagio, where Dvořák deviates from established formal procedures, there is “not a trace of artificiality or contrivance” to be found in his Violin Concerto.

“A divine naturalness flows” through the mainly lyrical slow second movement, which however is not without pronounced accents and hymnlike effusions. “What and how much of Bohemian national music” has found its way into Dvořák’s melodious Violin Concerto, especially into its earthy three-section finale movement, is hard to determine – “but that is a matter of indifference”.

In a letter to his Berlin publisher Simrock, who among other works issued the Violin Concerto, Dvořák wrote in 1879: “As you see, I’m not one of those who want only to get rich quickly and, unfortunately, through inordinate haste too often produce works betraying a lack of artistic solidity.” That remark notwithstanding, even Dvořák now and then made things easy for himself. His Romance for violin and orchestra in F minor op. 11 represents the orchestration of a work for violin and piano, which is in turn based on the slow movement from his String Quartet in F minor op. 9. But who could object when listening to this subtly composed elegiac music? Even when practising compositional second exploitation, as the Berlin critic Ehlert expressed it, Dvořák remained “a complete, and indeed a completely natural talent”.

“Music that I enjoy listening to”: Witold Lutosławski

Barely a century after Dvořák had paved the way to a brilliant composing career, Witold Lutosławski confessed that he only created “music that I enjoy listening to”. Not an atypical statement from a 20th-century composer, one will suppose – and yet perhaps one that may also help to explain the success of Lutosławski’s music: the high level of tonal and rhythmic construction in this mathematic student’s multi-layered and meticulously wrought scores have found and continue to find, not only the admiration of musical experts, but also unusually wide popularity among the public. The reason for this acceptance may be that the greatly varying compositional techniques he has employed over the years, including experimental structures, have never represented a compositional end in itself but have always been directed towards the listening experience.

Lutosławski was of two minds in his relationship to folk music. Like many composers before him, he saw it as a chance to breathe new life into the increasingly timeworn system of major-minor tonality. At the same time, working with such melodies also ran the risk of criticism for propagating a populist agenda in the service of socialist realism. The ambivalence of this situation became clearly apparent when Lutosławski was awarded the Polish Prime Minister’s Prize – for a cycle of children’s songs! “I was decorated by the authorities for writing functional music,” Lutosławski later recalled. “They thought I had composed them to do justice to the aesthetic guidelines.”

In the Concerto for Orchestra, which Lutosławski worked on from 1950 to 1954, folk music – as the composer explained – was “merely a raw material used to build a large musical form of several movements which does not in the least originate either from folksongs or from folk dances. A work came into being, which I could not help including among my most important pieces, as a result of my fleeting connection with folk music and in a way that for me was quite unexpected. This work is the Concerto for Orchestra.”

Folk material is manifested in various ways in the multi-sectional first movement. Simple diatonic motives are, as the composer has stated, “blended with chromatic atonal counterpoint, and with non-functional, multi-coloured capricious harmonies”, while polymetric structures emerge from the rhythmic development of individual motifs and their combination with accompanimental figures. The middle movement is formally tighter, an elfishly scurrying scherzo with contrasting Trio and a drastically foreshortened reprise. As exemplified vividly by the closing section, which is largely given over to the percussion, individual instrumental sections repeatedly take on solo assignments in Lutosławski’s composition, making it a genuine “concerto” for orchestra.

The last movement consists of three parts, to an extent artfully overlapped. It begins pianissimo with harp and double basses presenting a folk-tinged bass theme, which is then treated as the ostinato foundation of a series of highly diverse variations. Following long stretches of build-up, the intensity of this section gradually diminishes at the end and leads directly to the freer form of a toccata, whose playful motor rhythms are eventually countered by a brass chorale. The virtual apotheosis in the work’s closing bars, never lapsing into superficial exulting, is further evidence of Lutosławski’s stupendous compositional technique and refined ear for sonorities.

Although the Concerto for Orchestra was the work that made Lutosławski famous in the West, he claimed in later years: “I don’t especially care for this work, but apparently it has managed to retain a certain freshness.” For Lutosławski, there were unpleasant memories connected with the necessity he once felt to defend his compositional language’s modernity when resorting to folk material, apparently in reference to the character of the Concerto for Orchestra. But his originality in this work in successfully reconciling folk music and the avant-garde represents a stroke of genius about which we today should think as little of quarrelling as about spring.

Mark Schulze Steinen

Translation: Richard Evidon

Manfred Honeck studied violin and viola at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna and was a member of the Vienna Philharmonic for many years. The Austrian began his conducting career during this time as assistant to Claudio Abbado with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. In 1991 he became principal conductor at the opera house in Zurich and two years later, he was awarded the European Conductor’s Award. Manfred Honeck then worked with the MDR Sinfonieorchester in Leipzig and in Oslo, where he not only took over at short notice as musical director of the Norwegian National Opera for one year in 1997, but also, after a highly successful European tour, was engaged for several years as principal guest conductor of the local Philharmonic Orchestra. From 2000 to 2006 he was chief conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Stockholm, and principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague from 2008 to 2011, a position he will take over again from 2013 to 2016. Moreover, Manfred Honeck was general music director of the Staatsoper Stuttgart from 2007 to 2011, where he conducted works including premieres of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Mozart’s Idomeneo, Verdi’s Aida, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal. Guest performances in opera have taken him to the Semperoper in Dresden, the Komische Oper in Berlin, the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, the “White Nights Festival” in St. Petersburg and the Salzburg Festival. During his extensive activities, he has conducted leading international orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since the 2008/2009 season, he has been music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and in February 2012, his contract was extended for a second time, now to the end of the 2019/2020 season. Manfred Honeck, who was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, now makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Anne-Sophie Mutter was born in Rheinfelden in Baden. She received her first violin lessons from Erna Honigberger when she was five. She later studied at the conservatory in Winterthur under Aida Stucki. She began her distinguished career at the Lucerne Festival in 1976, and the following year, she made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Since then, she has performed all over the world as a concert soloist with the leading international orchestras and as a chamber musician. In 1978, Anne-Sophie Mutter perfomed with the Philharmoniker in Berlin for the first time, playing the Violin Concerto in G major, K. 216 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, conducted by Karajan. She was the soloist in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Philharmoniker and Karajan at the opening concert of the Chamber Music Hall on 28 October 1987. Her most recent performance in a concert with the orchestra in Berlin was in January 2011 with the Violin Concerto by Antonín Dvořák, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. A particular interest of Anne-Sophie Mutter is contemporary violin music: composers who have dedicated works to her include Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Sebastian Currier, Henri Dutilleux, Sofia Gubaidulina, Sir André Previn and Wolfgang Rihm, whose Lichtes Spiel for violin and orchestra she (as artist in residence) premiered in mid-November 2010 in New York under the direction of Michael Francis with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2008, the artist set up the “Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation”. The aim of the foundation is to further increase worldwide support for promising young musicians, something which the violinist has supported since 1997 with the establishment of the “Freundeskreis der Anne-Sophie Mutter Stiftung e.V.” (Friends of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation). It also supports medical and social projects through regular benefit concerts. Anne-Sophie Mutter has received many prestigious awards for her musical activities and her commitment to cultural and social issues, including the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Bavarian Order of Merit, the Austrian Grand Decoration of Honour, the French “Ordre des Arts et des Lettres”, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize and the Leipzig Mendelssohn Award. In 2010, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. A year later, she also received the Brahms Prize, and the Erich Fromm Prize and the Gustav Adolf Prize for her social commitment. In 2012 Anne-Sophie Mutter was also awarded the Distinguished Artistic Leadership Award of the Atlantic Council.

Anne-Sophie Mutter

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Anne-Sophie Mutter appears by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.

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