Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall
June 14, 2018

A soloist needs to have a certain level of star power to tip the conventional overture-concerto-symphony concert structure on its head, but German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter had more than enough to relegate the symphony to the first half of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s program last night – a star power she more than justified with a warm and brilliant performance that saw her return to the stage for several encores.

With the Queen of the Violin playing the mighty if well-worn Tchaikovsky Concerto at one end of the concert, SSO Chief David Robertson opened with something more unusual – the First Symphony of Vasily Kalinnikov, who was robbed by poverty and tuberculosis (he died within days of his 35th birthday) of what could have potentially been a much more significant and productive career.

Anne-Sophie Mutter, Queen of the ViolinAnne-Sophie Mutter. Photo © Herald Hoffmann, Deutsche Grammophon

Kalinnikvov was Moscow-based initially – Tchaikovsky got him a conducting gig – but ill health forced him to seek warmer climes in the Crimea, where he wrote his well-received First (and later his Second) Symphony. While Kalinnikov’s breakout work is still given a regular airing in Russia, it isn’t so well known in Australia – the last time the SSO performed this Symphony Ben Chifley was Prime Minister.

Kalinnikov doesn’t have the weighty depth of Tchaikovsky, but Robertson made this lightness a feature, giving the Symphony a lithe, spirited reading that revelled in its Slavic melodies and acted as an effective primer for the Tchaikovsky to come. The first movement saw these expressive melodies – beautifully painted in the SSO strings – supported by a surging, syncopated accompaniment, Robertson deftly pacing the build-ups and stoking the work’s restless forward momentum, practically dancing in the light moments and finding a religious reverence in the fugue. There were many fine wind solos in the melancholy second movement, which is held together by a hypnotically insistent two-note figure, but Shefali Pryor’s oboe lines were a particular highlight – as they were throughout. Robertson was again light on his feet in the boisterous folk-dance of the Scherzo before the fourth movement – which binds together music from earlier in the symphony – built to a blazing finale.

Sandwiched between the two Russian works was the Australian premiere of John Williams’ Markings, commissioned by Mutter and first performed last year at Tanglewood. The composer behind the music of Star Wars and Jurassic Park has often brought a very different aesthetic to his works for the concert hall and Markings is no exception, exploring a brooding, atonal sound world. Uneasy harmonies spread out from the gentle string opening, Mutter’s solo entry dark – with an edge – before climbing to more lyrical heights. Broadly ternary, Williams’ music becomes anxious and rhythmic in the middle section, before receding once more, Mutter’s final shimmering high note hanging in the air.

The SSO strings brought a clean resonance to the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, before Mutter joined with a sultry tone, giving the music a slinky fluidity. The violinist has played this work countless times, and recorded it twice (first with Karajan, then Previn), but, as the work’s first soloist, Adolf Brodsky, put it: “one can play it again and again and never be bored.” Mutter obviously agrees, and this was certainly no cookie-cutter performance.

Her flexible approach to the famous opening had her leaning in to Robertson, her rubato making this very much a duet for violinist and conductor (you wouldn’t know this was their first collaboration). The orchestra’s reflexes were put to the test but more than up to the challenge. With a warhorse like the Tchaikovsky Concerto it’s refreshing to hear a performance infused with so much personality, and while Mutter’s liberties may not have been to everyone’s taste (the contours of the first movement felt intriguingly understated), you can’t argue with her easy, brilliant technique and warm musicality. Her double-stopping was immaculate, her sound vibrant and confidant, her harmonics in the cadenza smooth as glass. Her muted violin in the heartbreaking opening melody of the Canzonetta was smokey and magical while she brought to the bravura Finale – which she took like the wind – a fierce energy, dispatching flurries of notes with perfect clarity. The enthusiastic audience kept her on stage for two encores: Williams’ theme music to Schindler’s List with the orchestra and, by herself, the Gigue from Bach’s Second Violin Partita.

With charismatic performances such as these, delivered with impeccable technique and plenty of personality, the Queen of the Violin is very much worthy of her crown.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Tchaikovsky at the Sydney Opera House until June 16


Anne-Sophie Mutter performs with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Hamer Hall, June 22 – 23


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