Fresh from their performance at Carnegie Hall, Anne-Sophie Mutter and her Mutter Virtuosi arrived in Toronto, playing Roy Thompson Hall to a loud, appreciative crowd. The selections, while varied, allowed the ensemble to strut their stuff, but it was ultimately impossible to escape the charismatic glare of their leader, who used her dazzling technique to impressive, if somewhat overblown, effect.

Anne-Sophie Mutter © Vladimir Kevorkov
Anne-Sophie Mutter
© Vladimir Kevorkov

Beginning with Sebastian Currier’s 2013 piece Ringtone Variations, Mutter was joined by double-bassist Roman Patkolo, who proved a more than capable match for Currier’s raucous rhythms and jarring sonic tensions. The piece, commissioned by the Anne-Sophie Mutter Stiftung and dedicated to the artist, is a querulous, atonal work that echoes the tones and rhythms of not only the mobile phones it directly references in its title, but reflects the bleeps and bloops of modern life itself. As Mutter writes in the program notes, “In some ways, Ringtone Variations resembles a set of Baroque variations like a passacaglia or a chaconne”. This is stretching things a bit. The work brought Schoenberg and Shostakovich more to mind than Baroque formalism, though the piece does have the octave jumps, repetitions and bowing demands of older music forms. Its beautiful virtuosic lyricism was lovingly brought out by Mutter who, together with Patkolo, eagerly tackled the work’s rocky atonality and harsh rhythmic interplay. While it was interesting, the audience, clearly there for violin fireworks, seemed bored and listless, and it didn’t help that the selection had few obvious ties (sonic or otherwise) with the rest of the program.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat major brought a sweeping lyricism through the hall, and audible sighs of relief. Its opening, with Mutter at stage left, was handled with confidence and flair. Tenuous modulation, clearly guided by Mutter herself, brought out the call and response between violin and cello, though the motif wasn’t as assertive as it could have been. The work was a great showcase for both the talented young ensemble and for demonstrating Mutter’s integration of both playing and leading. She made the piece’s complex, exuberant technique look easy, the quick scales and rhythms falling into place. Some in the Virtuosi have clearly made this music their own; others tried hard to keep pace. There were true moments of sonorous ensemble playing, however, with the octet using a mix of anxiety, endurance and joy (and exhaustion, at the movement’s end), and it was a nice reflection of the composer’s own youth at the time he composed the piece.

Its second movement, the Andante, was slowed to a more contemplative pace. The attention given by the Virtuosi demonstrated a lyrical quality reminiscent of Beethoven’ string quartets, moving between melodious and light, romantic and stormy, joyous and ponderous. The movement’s descending three-note motif, given variations, leads to an inconspicuous ending, handled with perhaps less finesse than it should have been. The third movement, the Scherzo, was true to its playful title, with tight rhythmic parts punctuated by long, lyrical lines and tonal jumps that, coupled with the virtuosi's careful, confident modulation, made for a lively listening experience.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Mutter Virtuosi © Vladimir Kevorkov
Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Mutter Virtuosi
© Vladimir Kevorkov

The “Spring” movement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons got off to a jaunty start, with Mutter leading the virtuosi through a frequently furiously-paced performance. The Largo was a lyrical expression of sadness, while the Allegro, with its not-too-fast pace, demonstrated a lovely sonic integration of the group’s truly virtuosic players. Before “Summer” started, Mutter warned the audience, who kept clapping between movements, they might be “exhausted” by the concert’s end; her gentle reminder about concert etiquette went ignored, for the most part, much to the detriment of players, concentration, class, and basic concert civility. 

The Allegro from “Summer” conjured all the oppressive feelings of a steamy Mediterranean season, and clearly brought to mind Vivaldi’s asthmatic condition; the movement was played with the kind of purposeful breathy quality that, far from being sexy, was torturous, painful, full of woe. Even the careful pausing between the three-note motifs felt like an intake… an outtake… it was rhythmic, human playing. All of this was swept aside, however, as the momentum of the evening moved inevitably through “Autumn,” with its graceful opening (Mutter’s aggressive bowing here was somewhat distracting) and eerie harpsichord sounds, to the yelping violins that open the Adagio of “Winter.” Mutter lost the lyricism here, and though her tone moved between dewy and rough quite purposefully, there was something rushed and perfunctory about it all. The notes were surely coming out, but was anything going in?

The emphasis on unusual phrasing certainly forced the listener to sit up a little more, with the repeated motif so beloved within the Allegro con molto played more legato and given an eyelash of a pause. The Largo, with lovely plucking work by the ensemble, showed off a keen awareness of its gentle qualities, while the final Allegro, steamrolled over those intentions with flashy intensity, but, it should be noted, it also showed the most unified and consistently confident playing of the evening from the Virtuosi. Mutter’s octave runs and the overall tempo leaned toward spectacle here, but it’s worth noting that one need not sacrifice beauty for speed; one simply has to feel, from the soloist, that this isn’t a race or a test – or, notably a chore, which somehow, it seemed to be for Mutter. She just didn’t look like she was having much fun.

Instead of choosing a complementary piece for the Virtuosi to perform as an encore — the first movement of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtsmusik or the Rondo from Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major (“The Bird”), for instance — the encore was simply a replaying of the Allegro from “Winter”, but faster and with more dramatics. The performance, with harsh phrasing and flashy dynamics, had the unfortunate effect of diminishing the memory of the evening’s earlier lyricism.