A recent concert by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis, piano, saw the Tonhalle almost having to hold people back at the gates. The public’s enthusiastic response meant the 1600-seat hall took on an additional 300 listeners, seating them six-rows deep behind both the musicians on stage and in the corridor beyond the main floor. That the concert fell on the very first day of the Zurich schools’ summer holidays predisposed us all to good spirits. What’s more, since Mutter studied violin with Aida Stucki in the nearby city of Winterthur, some proud locals claim her as one of their own.

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

Johannes Brahms’ Violin Sonata no. 2 in A major was completed in 1886 while the composer was holidaying on Lake Thun in Switzerland, endearing this repertoire to a Swiss audience from the start. While summer holidays are usually a chance to ‘let things go’, Brahms’ sojourns in the country sparked ventures into new musical frontiers. Giving the work the formal title of “Sonata for Piano and Violin”, Brahms made the piano part as important as the violin’s, making the piece a fitting choice to begin the evening. The seasoned Mutter and Orkis duo recently celebrated their 25th anniversary of musical collaboration, and their intuitive relationship is evident.

Anne-Sophie Mutter made a supremely graceful figure on stage, and her strapless designer gown − in this case a stunner in saturated coral pink − underscored her poise. When playing, she stayed inside a relatively tight orbit, and kept very close to the piano. In complete command of her repertoire, her avoidance of any overt “showmanship” was refreshing; she gave the music centre stage rather than any antics around it. While her bow, of course, arched high at the end of a demonstrative phrase, and she continuously shifted her weight between her left to right foot, she rarely left her “pinned” position over Orkis’ right shoulder to any great degree. And he took his cues by looking back at her, sometimes in an impish, playful way that reminded me of the royal footman deferring to his Queen. Her range of expression is extraordinary, and the number of voices she can pull from the strings, nothing less than legion. But what impressed above all in this piece was that she dared to be tender.

Beethoven's Violin Sonata no. 10 in G major is often described as the loveliest of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, marked as it is by "calm, ethereal beauty" from the very first trill. In the second movement, Mutter’s silky rendition of the melody became a vehicle for Orkis’ dreamlike accompaniment; the Adagio espressivo was heart-rendering. At times, both musicians seemed to have “given up” to a Higher Order, and the breathless silence in the hall attested to that, the players’ concentration never wavering.

The greatest surprise of the evening came with Ottorini Respighi’s Violin Sonata in B minor. What began quietly had hellfire on its heels. Mutter’s twisting, melancholic violin – its lower registers with the depth and breadth of a cello – was as mesmerizing as a line drawing by Sophie Tauber-Arp. Mutter alternated that finesse with vehemence and energy; while Orkis, in the third movement particularly, bridged into what almost sounded like the thick fabric of Rachmaninov or Brahms. When he ended the piece with a raised finger after a single note – ping! – it was he who brought down the house.

Ravel’s Tzigane closed the program. What is a clearly a take on “Gypsy music” puts the violin to a gruelling test of virtuosity. But on the heels of the Respighi, the gypsy sound came across like an exercise in “fast forward” and had little emotive power. After the piece premiered almost a century ago in London, a Times critic cited Ravel’s music as having an “almost reptilian cold-bloodedness,” and indeed there was something slithery here, particularly in the passages just before the piano enters halfway into the piece. Granted, Mutter stunned with her absolute control of the instrument’s sheer mechanics, but it was Orkis who added an underwater dimension to his playing, which in the end made him just as much a musical phenomenon.