Thoroughly Modern Mutter

When violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter was 6 years old, she performed in a church before several rows of paraplegics in wheelchairs. At one point, she hoped the sounds emanating from her instrument would, by sheer force of spirit, physically transform them, cure them.

“Music opens up a dimension that goes way beyond what we see and what we can physically feel,” says Mutter 30 years later. “It reminds me of Michelangelo’s picture in the Sistine Chapel, when the fingers of God and Adam almost touch. That’s music for me.”

No real miracles in that bygone church – except for Mutter herself. As a prodigy, she felt a strange kinship with the handicapped. “Being gifted is being, in a way, disabled, because you don’t fit into the system,” she says. “You are too quick, too different, too unmanageable, and therefore fall through the cracks.” That’s why she’s started a foundation, based in her hometown of Munich, to provide gifted musicians with the right instrument and the right teacher. In addition, she regularly plays benefit concerts raising money to fight aids, leukemia, and myopathy, and she is building an orphanage in Romania.

Mutter, of course, didn’t fall through the cracks. After demanding piano lessons as a 5th-birthday present, she soon switched to the violin. Within a mere eight years, legendary Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan had taken her under his wing, pronouncing her “the greatest musical prodigy since the young Menuhin.” Her debut, at age 13, mystified and galvanized audiences in Salzburg, rapt before the mature, sophisticated sound-world emanating from so young an artist.

At age 36, Mutter – now a widowed mother of two children and a global superstar – has never fizzled, a real danger in the high-pressure lives of the preternaturally gifted. “I have too much fire to ever be burnt out,” she insists. Indeed, she’s spending the new-millennial month of January in New York City spinning out a dizzying retrospective of twentieth-century works for the violin – the kind of intense, back-to-back concertizing that would send most musicians to the E.R. Three programs with the New York Philharmonic, each performed twice, range from the last Romantic concerto, by Jean Sibelius, to the recent Concerto No. 2 by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (already underway, they continue on January 11, 12, 14, and 15 at Avery Fisher Hall). Two recitals, on January 10 and 17 at Carnegie Hall (with her partner, American pianist Lambert Orkis), will run the gamut from Bartók to mystic minimalist Arvo Pärt.

With most of the Classical and Romantic warhorses under her belt by her twentieth year, Mutter began to flirt with the challenges – and beauties – of the twentieth-century repertory, soon becoming its champion.

“Emotions don’t stop in the 1930s,” says Mutter. “There’s so much touching, exciting music, and the selection I made follows the classical search for emotional involvement. As long as it has a story to tell, you can persuade an audience.” Noting that the century that so aggressively signified the “new” is now behind us, she adds impishly, “We’ll probably be a little less shy toward ‘contemporary’ music because it’s not contemporary anymore – That’s the last century! My God, how boring!

Music may be the universal language, but it demands a good translator. As New York Philharmonic conductor Kurt Masur puts it, “Mutter is able to speak with this instrument; she even has something to say about life and death with her violin.” Her ability to get across the logic of any piece goes back to the Karajan years. “He taught me what to look for in scores, where to put the spotlight,” says Mutter. “It’s like being a detective.” Karajan also taught her to see beyond her own belly button: “He prepared a climax in a symphony a half an hour in advance. Petits moments de beauté didn’t interest him. There was always a big arch, all the way to the end, as if constructing a cathedral in one evening.

“The Berg concerto is an El Dorado for a detective’s mind,” she continues, referring to one of the works she’ll perform this month. “How can you get excited, how can you get under the skin of the piece if you don’t really, really know it?” She really knows, for instance, how the Bach chorale blossoms out of the work’s twelve-tone row – one of the most poignant moments in all of music: “That’s Berg’s genius: He combines the serial system with soul.”

Many of the pieces in Mutter’s festival would seem to have chosen her. Witold Lutoslawski’s phenomenal Chain 2, Wolfang Rihm’s haunting Time Chant, and Penderecki’s lyrical Violin Concerto No. 2 (her recording of which won two Grammys in 1997) were all written for and given their premieres by Mutter. The first two were commissioned by the late Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, who “planted the seed of contemporary art in me,” says Mutter, adding that of all those on her program, the American George Crumb stands out as the “great revelation. The way he uses the fiddle and the piano is much more than one normal brain could imagine.” Because the piece calls for some knocking on the instrument, Mutter will use a contemporary violin instead of her customary Strad: “Doing that to a fiddle nearly 300 years old doesn’t make me feel comfortable.”

Since her first Mozart recordings with Karajan, Mutter has metamorphosed from pudgy wunderkind to bombshell virtuoso decked out in her trademark strapless gowns, each album cover a ringer for a fashion ad. Selling classical music these days seems to demand such body-beautiful tactics, but sex appeal and virtuosity have gone hand in hand ever since the flashy days of Franz Liszt. Yet none of this would mean anything were it not for Mutter’s irresistible sound. “Each note for me is like a sculpture,” she says. “That is what attracted me to this instrument as a very small child – that with one finger I can create a whole world in only one single note.”

For her, art is more than just a metaphor. At age 11, Mutter found herself trembling before the violent colors in Van Gogh’s last painting, Wheatfield With Crows. A Velázquez crucifixion has haunted her for twenty years. And her recent recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – dedicated to her husband, Detlef Wunderlich, who died of cancer four years ago – probably would not have happened but for a chance visit with the German artist Gotthard Graubner, whose paintings grace the album’s cover.

Since danger and risk-taking are a way of life for Mutter inside the concert hall, it makes sense that mountain climbing is a passion of hers. They’re not unrelated. “Climbing the mountain is exactly what you must do each evening,” she says. “You must always approach a piece as if it were the first time. You’re never sure of the outcome – at least I’m never sure. That makes it so exciting. And frightening.”

Thoroughly Modern Mutter