Brahms and Schumann Breathe Afresh at the San Francisco Symphony

Anne Sophie Mutter - February 2015_edited-1

Friday night’s performance at Davies Hall brought an array of fresh interpretations from Anne Sophie Mutter, MTT, the SF Symphony, and a smaller ensemble of its members, which tied together with an elegant bow under the theme of spring and its expressive potential.“The Light That Fills the World,” a 1998 piece from composer John Luther Adams, led by Christian Baldini, explored the image and feeling of the first light of spring, its abstract blanket of continued sound perhaps portraying the chaos of creation or awakening. A celestial blend of vibraphone, portative organ, marimba, contrabassoon, and double basses sustained a lush harmony over which the dissonances of the protagonist – the violin – stood out poignantly.

After this atmospheric beginning, Anne Sophie Mutter’s undeniable presence filled the stage, as did her bright yellow dress and its gigantic couture bow in the back – the set-up of true violin nobility, inside and out. After the warm seriousness of the orchestral beginning in Brahms’s Violin Concerto, and its contrasting dotted declamation, Mutter made a breathtakingly dramatic entrance, and throughout maintained the convincing dramatization of musical gestures, never failing to show her undeniable understanding of the array of Brahmsian passions, which so homogeneously mix in this piece. She highlighted the sweet yet haunting B theme in the first movement with such enveloping sound, that the lines’ naturalness surrendered willingly to gravity, the descending chromaticism, especially, trickling down sumptuously. Although the complexity of the driving passages was sometimes approached with near-stridency, the tension was passed so well between soloist orchestra that any over-tumultuousness was well adapted.

The second movement came as no walk in the park, merely there to fill up time between virtuosic movements — Brahms’s special approach to virtuosity, and his clear intention to highlight not just the brilliant and dazzling parts of violin individuality, was confirmed by Mutter’s warm-hearted rendition of its sweet profundity, which oboist Mingjia Liu artfully set up. Composed closely to the Op. 78 Violin Sonata, the first movement of which often brings to mind spring and babbling brooks, the concerto’s slow movement perfectly fit Mutter’s particular grasp of lyricism, which, without losing poignancy (even if its intensity felt at times like a general outpouring of emotion), did not ever touch on over-sentimentality. Here, as in the first movement, Mutter reached the heights of expressivity in transparent moments of astonishing pianissimo. She kept her playing luscious yet clean enough that it seems undeniably informed by an awareness of Brahms’s specific idea of violin playing – especially as taken from the point of view of his friend and famous violinist Joseph Joachim.

Although Mutter’s unique interpretative choices in the first two movements would surely generate much diverse discourse between listeners and especially violinists, it would have been difficult for even the pickiest of them to have found the last movement even an inch out of her interpretative forte. And although the movement’s ma non troppo indication seemed questionable at the beginning, the “giocoso,” – emphasized by casual yet spirited rhythmic flexibility – was certainly there, and the blazing trail left behind felt not like a generic trace of dazzle but a collection of interesting elements that altogether shouted “what a truly convincing, magnificent performance!”

The second half brought nothing other than Schumann’s First – “Spring” – Symphony – a tricky piece to pull off, but that, when done well, comes off as a gem. Bringing to mind “Chaos” from the beginning of Haydn’s “The Creation,” the (re)birth theme in the piece was carved by MTT with great attention to its historical and musical versatility, additional references to Beethoven and Schubert – and precursors to Brahms works, no less the violin concerto – jumping out strikingly. That sprightly, rhythmically contagious good-naturedness that is so specifically Schumannesque in the first movement was balanced in the second by warm and solemn solos from the trombone section, then by an impassioned scherzo, with dance-like trios, and finally by a grazioso last movement – the “Farewell to Spring” – where the trombones came back and a horn call, answered by the flute, mixed freshness with nostalgic remembrance before the brilliantly triumphant coda solved all musical loose ends.

Although the subtlety of this interpretation elicited a less immediately enthusiastic response from the audience than Mutter’s performance in the first half, the program’s almost pastoral narrative made sense in light of the elegant conclusion. One would have only wished that instead of this always deliberately “most important” emphasis on the orchestral collective at the SF Symphony, the soloist wouldn’t have to withhold encores and semi-apologetically shrug her shoulders after the audience demanded her back on stage the fourth time.


Archived in these categories: 20th Century, Concerto, Orchestral, Romantic Era, Violin.
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