Anne-Sophie Mutter Interview: Korngold, the Inner Voices of the Orchestra, and the Language of Empathy

With four Grammy Awards, an impressively varied discography, and a continuing solo career spanning the whole world, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter now releases an album of charming short works and concerto fragments. She spoke with KING FM’s Dave Beck about the music of Mutterissimo, and music’s power to link people together.

Dave Beck: What were the pieces that were important for you to include on this recording, that you call Mutterissimo? What were some of your thoughts and considerations as you chose this material?

Anne-Sophie Mutter: I wanted to give an audience a taste of as many different styles as possible, an audience who maybe doesn’t want or have the time to sit down for 35 minutes, 40 minutes to listen to an entire concerto. So we have pieces by Bach, and covering all the romantic repertoire [such as] Schumann and Mendelssohn. We have Brahms in it, we have also Stravinsky in it, Gershwin, and little pieces arranged by Heifetz. So it’s from really the core repertoire to more unknown pieces, but also two pieces that are highly virtuosic and just great fun to listen to. Excerpts run from 10, 12 minutes down to one minute and a few seconds – I think that’s the Jamaican Rumba I’m thinking of. It’s pretty much trying to be a bridge between the different styles, and hopefully catching the listener’s interest and hooking them – finding a few ears who want to deepen their understanding and eventually listen to an entire piece, not just an excerpt of a violin concerto.

DB: Along with these brilliant performance of concerto movements by Korngold and Beethoven and Brahms, there are these charming little miniatures: the Gershwin Prelude is wonderful, and the Dvořák and Brahms dances. There’s a Fritz Kreisler arrangement of the Mendelssohn “Spring” Song Without Words. What is the special delight for you in the world of the miniature, pieces often used for encores? Why are they such a pleasure to explore?

ASM: It’s a very good point Dave, and sadly this is repertoire that is vanishing. Of course, you have the chance to bring them back in encores, but you really have to dig for them. In conjunction with Lambert Orkis’s and my Live from the Club album, we were digging very much into all these Heifetz encores from the last century and finding music which is really the essence of style put into the one and a half minutes or the three minutes that the composer gives that particular piece. And the wonderful thing is in a setting of twenty to thirty minutes of these little gems, you really have to switch quite a bit between the musical languages. It’s a great challenge, but it’s a great joy to play so many different roles.

DB: I love hearing you play the Korngold Concerto.

ASM: It’s a great piece.

DB: It reminds me too of your [performance of the] Heifetz arrangement of the Gershwin. It’s such a summation of – there’s an American character, but it’s that great virtuosity and sense of color and style that you bring to everything you do. I wonder if doing pieces like Gershwin and Korngold have a special resonance for you.

ASM: You know, Gershwin – I was very shy of really going in that direction of repertoire, because it’s musical language I have not been growing up with. I think German orchestras in general are not very good at playing American music, so I always have been rather self-conscious being a German, but then André [Previn] said “eh, you can play jazz, you can play anything!” And I did study Gershwin a bit with him and he was very generous, so I hope I’m not insulting anyone when I’m playing Gershwin. And almost the same thing with Korngold. I grew up with this incredible [Heifetz] recording – actually a few times, Heifetz has recorded it, the Korngold Concerto. And I always thought oh boy, I would really love to play it, but why bother if there’s such a perfect interpretation out there by Heifetz? And it was once again André who said you have to play it, you can do it and you can bring something different to it. And it’s definitely a style of music writing which doesn’t exist anymore, and which I highly appreciate because of the orchestration of Korngold, and the themes he is coming up with, and the way he really knows where the violin is at her best when it comes to virtuosity, as well as these long, longing and very colorful melodic lines. That’s a total dream come true for violinists to play.

DB: I’ve read that one of the things that you’re more interested in over the years is the inner voices of an orchestra. And you listen to that Korngold concerto and you hear the rich instrumentation and the way that you interact with that – it sounds like that’s something that gets richer and more intriguing for you whatever the concerto, as the years go along.

ASM: But of course for that – that’s a very good point – for that you need a great conductor, and it’s solely André’s doing in bringing out these voices. Then of course, as a co-musician, which the soloist is, you do react to what is in the score and what the conductor brings out. But sometimes I’m leading orchestras, although in a very limited repertoire: baroque [works] and the Mozart concerti. And then of course, going back to these scores which seem to be so simply orchestrated: in the simplicity lies the essence of importance of every single note. You do learn to dig deeper, and that’s how I developed – some 17 years ago – my love for looking deeper into the orchestra score and bringing that (when I’m leading from the violin) out. That’s what makes the many operatic dialogues in Mozart’s concerti even more vivid and transparent and clear to the listener.

DB: I wanted to get at least one question in on how you encourage the young artists that you mentor to make a strong mark in the world beyond the brilliant things they do on the violin, or the cello or the double bass. What can and must an artist and musician bring to the world to make it a better place?

ASM: I do see (over the decades I am performing and traveling) that music can really have an impact on society. You can and should bring people together in pro-bono work, spending time and collecting money and really investing efforts in getting interested in the causes of, let’s say, the SOS Children’s Villages, or Save the Children Organization, or Artists Against AIDS… I mean there are a trillion organizations. Or [organizations like] Rise Against Hunger, where music and dedicated concerts for such an organization can play a vital role for making the world a better place not only through financial donations but through the fact that you talk about it, that you make it your agenda, that you are an advocate for the poor and the ones in the shadow of society, and then we all, as humanity, understand that we are all interlinked with each other and empathy goes a long way. It needs to be exercised, and music seems to be the perfect language to start that process.

Mutterissimo is available now on Deutsche Grammophon.