For the Gala Opening Night of this year’s BSO season last Friday evening, September 30, Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin and conductor, as the program put it, performed two of Mozart’s Violin Concerti, No. 3 in G (K. 216) and No. 5 in A (K. 219), with the full battalions of the symphony scaled down to a suitable size. Mutter’s distinctive musical personality, emotional depth, and powerful sound have been proclaimed far and wide for thirty-five years, so it is hardly necessary for me to detail them here. Personally, I thought her performance, on this occasion, although competent and confident, somewhat unexciting. All was so firmly—even rigidly—controlled, as to leave an impression of an artist unwilling to give the music and the audience all. I do not know whether this may have stemmed from caution, or habit, but the result was a performance that failed to move me deeply.
This was particularly evident in the cadenzas, all of which were pre-composed—those for the Third Concerto by Sam Franko and those for the Fifth Concerto by Joachim, with a new version by Ossip Schnirlin. Now, in Mozart’s time, it was expected and customary for a soloist to improvise his or her own cadenzas. If you could not do this, you might ask for someone to write one for you, as, indeed Mozart’s sister Nannerl was obliged to do. She was by all repute a fine pianist (finer, in fact, than her brother for many years), but was never—whether by inclination or training or both—even a competent composer. So she asked her brother to write cadenzas and modulating preludes for her, which he did. Today, however, it is not required that a soloist improvise, or even write, his or her own cadenzas. To be sure, it is exciting, interesting, and entertaining when a soloist does. But even standard pre-composed cadenzas should produce an effect of daring improvisation, and not be put forward in such a manner as to make it obvious that it is a carefully prepared, well practiced, soundly memorized piece. Quite apart from anything else, neither Franko nor Joachim were such fine composers as Mozart, and to play their various attempts at cadential fantasias as though they were the most important, climactic, difficult, and intellectual parts of the concerti is mildly comical. Franko’s cadenzas were quite lackluster, in fact, although Joachim’s were pretty pieces of romantic melodrama.
My one very serious objection to the performance as a whole was the decision for Mutter to conduct as well as solo. Not that I object to the lack of conductor — not at all. There is no reason why the piece should not be led by the soloist or the first violin — but it requires that the soloist be a true leader of the orchestra, play with it, and be extremely clear with cues. The orchestra on Friday was arranged almost in a full circle around Mutter (to the extent that the second violins had their backs to the audience, which I don’t imagine helped the sound much), but, apart from this, practically the only effort visible from the audience which Mutter made to lead the orchestra consisted of waving her arms at them during opening tuttis and nodding encouragingly at odd moments when her part paused. Otherwise, as soon as the solo part began, she ignored the orchestra completely. Unfortunately, this is not the sort of music in which this can be done. Mozart’s concerti, even at their showiest, are neither straightforward showpieces such as Paganini was obliged to write, where the orchestra is reduced to a glorified accompanist oom-pah-pahing in the background, nor grand romantic battles of the lonely and heroic soloist against the mighty symphonic forces, as in Brahms. They are intricately and subtly written pieces for violin and orchestra, in which the soloist must at all times be part of the dialogue. Without a conductor or leader of some sort holding the whole together, it is in danger of coming apart at the seams, as Friday’s performance came uncomfortably near to doing on several occasions (as in the lively Turkish passages in the final Rondeau of the Fifth Concerto, when Mutter’s fast runs frequently ran away from the orchestra). If the soloist resigns from the duty of leading whenever he or she is required to play, and if the concertmaster does not step into the breach, a conductor becomes necessary.
Tamar Hestrin-Grader, a harpsichordist, received her A.B. in Music from Harvard in May.