The iconic German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter never visited Sydney until 2012. Since then, the excellent musical relationship with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, helped by the wholeheartedly warm response from the local audience, has blossomed into further collaborations. Last week, on her third visit to Australia, Mutter chose two works to perform with the SSO. The concert started with the Romance in F minor for violin and orchestra by Antonín Dvořák, followed by his Violin Concerto in A minor. During the compositional process of the latter, the composer had hoped to get some advice – even a commitment to perform the concerto – from Joseph Joachim, one of the most well-known virtuoso violinists of the 19th century, but neither eventuated. Whatever Joachim’s objections were, they may have influenced later violinists as well, as this opus never achieved the popularity of other great Romantic violin concertos or Dvořák’s own famous Cello Concerto. Mutter herself, despite her most impressive discography, avoided recording the Dvořák Concerto for many years: performances with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and a subsequent studio recording took place only in 2013.

Anne-Sophie Mutter © Harald Hoffmann | DG
Anne-Sophie Mutter
© Harald Hoffmann | DG

If anyone can do justice to this composition, it is Mutter. Her understanding of the stylistic requirements of both of these Slavic works is as impressive as her impeccable command of their substantial technical demands. Her once uncompromisingly fierce style of performing has mellowed considerably in recent years. To be sure, she still appears to be fearless as she gets around the most demanding parallel thirds and octaves, stratospherically high notes and rapid passages. But her sound is filled with sustained velvety warmth when she wants it; the soft dynamics are not there for show, nor even to simply follow instructions from the score, but to draw the listener into an introverted, sublime other-world. Her portamenti (slides between notes) are never self-serving, her vibrato always reflects the content of the music: at times completely absent over a number of notes, here gentle, there wildly passionate. Her bow appears to connect with the string almost magnetically, the intensity and speed of the contact deliberately and precisely executed, producing a myriad of seldom heard tone colours. She follows the composer’s instructions faithfully but not blindly, and when her artistic want requires some delicate change, she follows her musical instinct; the Concerto’s third movement is a case in point, where at the key and time-signature change Dvořák specifies L’istesso tempo (the same tempo), yet it felt noticeably slower in this performance.

The orchestra followed Mutter’s subtle rubato playing with elegance under the baton of Jakub Hrůša, unofficial ambassador for Czech music around the world. It would have been perhaps better to keep the size of the orchestra constant in the two Dvořák compositions apart from the extra instruments specified in the score (two more horns, a pair of trumpets and timpani). As it happened, the Romance was performed with a smaller orchestra, playing in perfect balance with the soloist, whereas the increased string body during the Concerto almost, but not quite, increased the orchestra’s volume to a level where a lesser soloist would have struggled to stay clearly audible. This wasn’t the case fortunately due to Mutter’s supreme expression in even the softest passages and the emphatic and sensitive attention to detail and balance by the visiting Czech conductor.

The string sections were extended again for Beethoven’s Symphony no.3 in E flat, to a size normally expected in the performance of a late Romantic symphonic composition. Although the string sound was well-rounded and warm throughout the evening, this still created a balance problem. (Beethoven orchestrated the “Eroica” similarly to the later symphonies of Haydn and Mozart with a smaller wind section, rather than employing triple or quadruple winds and large brass sections reminiscent of Mahler or Tchaikovsky.) As a result, some beautiful woodwind melodies sounded pale in this performance as they were unable to compete with the powerful string sound in front of them.

Hrůša truly excelled in the accompaniment of the violin solos; however his leadership was less impressive in the second half, during the performance of the “Eroica”. While his contribution in the first half of the concert was inspiring as he followed the soloist and constantly refined the balance, during the second half his energy remained apparent without seeming to be effective. His gestures did not always result in his intended delicate change of tone colour, volume or tempo, and conversely the (otherwise excellent) orchestral playing did not necessarily reflect his conducting. A magnetic connection was hard to detect here. In fact, at times my impression was that while he conducted an “Eroica” Symphony, the orchestra – amicably and at a high standard – played a slightly different reading of the same work at the same time. Then they took bows together.