IN: Reviews

Mutter Shows Two Sides, Shosty Several


BMInt readers are not the only music-lovers who know that Deutsche Grammophon has already released recordings from Andris Nelsons’s massive journey through the works of Shostakovich with the Boston Symphony, and that the first, covering the Fifth, Eighth, Ninth symphonies, won a Grammy last year. This week’s BSO concert contains the next installments of the cycle, the brief Festive Overture and the oddly shaped Sixth Symphony, and as with the others, DG is recording live.

The performances on Thursday night were definitive BSO / Nelsons Shostakovich, featuring rich and powerful orchestral sonority and gorgeous solo playing. Nelsons’s interpretations are controlled but not domineering: athletic, virtuosic, lithe and responsive. The Festive Overture opened the evening with a perfectly coordinated blaze of brass that was authoritative and warm, loud without shouting, giving way to a giddy sprint the rest of the way. At the other end of the night, the long brooding opening movement of the symphony unfolded inexorably. The movement is often not dense, made up of long solos and dialogues, but it never sounded thin, thanks to the sheer beauty of sound produced, especially by the winds and brass (almost everyone in the back rows was given a bow at the end of the performance).

The Sixth is an awkward piece, its dark and massive first movement followed by two much briefer movements, the second an occasionally breezy Allegro and the third a brawling, wild Presto. Many commentators have found it difficult to reconcile the fact that they are all parts of the same work, and this performance didn’t make the relationships any clearer. While Nelsons and the BSO have a definitive style, they do not always produce definitive Shostakovich: the fast movements were agitating and exciting, but balances were often not finely calibrated. Strings often sounded underpowered when assuming the melody, and tempos sometimes felt breathless. The orchestra never faltered, but moments got missed. The secondary melody in the Overture, with its little jazzy turn, sped past without getting a chance to make an impression, and the fast movements in the Symphony became often satisfyingly violent but at times blunt and unthinking. To be sure, there were many lovely moments, such as the gossamer scales that appear and then evaporate to end the second movement. I don’t doubt that these were intentional decisions, and they did help dispel the long shadow cast by the first movement, but it was their finest achievement on this night.

Anne Sophie Mutter and Andris Nelsons (Hilary Scott photo)

There was a soloist on the program too, with a big name: Anne-Sophie Mutter. Before the intermission she gave us a version of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that is more interesting to write about than to hear. Right from the start there were unusual portamenti and expressive distortions that threatened to leave the realm of rubato and enter that of arrhythmia, with a touch of vinegar in her tone. At any given moment something interesting was going on: a rush ahead or behind, a sudden dynamic change, a frantic virtuoso outburst. The first movement was continually mannered, the second less so but at times the solo part nearly inaudible. The fireworks in the third movement impressed without controversy. The piece is a little shaggy to begin with, and nothing was done to rein that in: for all the minute-to-minute activity, it stretched on.

Happily, we got to hear her play again after intermission, in Takemitsu’s reflective encomium Nostalghia: In Memory of Andrei Tarkovsky. This tribute to a film director known for great visual beauty, languorous pacing, and particular love for the natural world is a quarter-hour of waves of cloudy harmony. The solo part speaks in long lines, which regularly ascend to the top of the instruments’ range and disappear, only to start over. It depicts striving for release disturbed occasionally by moments of agitation. Mutter played with deep emotion but eschewed rhetoric, a plainspoken, self-effacing performance. In a night filled with pyrotechnics and wild gestures, the best moments came when time moved slowly and the music revealed itself only gradually.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.


31 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you, Mr. Schuth, for writing an honest review, unlike the one that appears in this morning’s Globe. I was at the Thursday night concert, and like Mr. Schuth, I was underwhelmed by Anne-Sophie Mutter. While she’s a wonderful violinist on the whole, if you kept your eyes closed and didn’t know who was on the stage performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, you would have heard a performance which would leave you thinking that soloist didn’t need to return to the stage again anytime soon.

    Her first movement was pretty terrible. Her vibrato was so wide that she was consistently flat on the notes she was supposed to be hitting, to the point that I had to stifle a laugh given a lengthy string of “flat notes” that were registering at one point. Her sound was, frankly, ugly. I thought to myself, “there are easily a half-dozen violinists at conservatories in Boston who could play this a whole lot better than she is.”

    She seemed like she was making a real effort and not dialing it in, but boy the results in the Tchaikovsky were not up to the standards one associates with her. I couldn’t wait for it to end. However, the crowd could not have more disagreed with my reaction and gave her a thunderous ovation. It was depressing.

    Her playing in the Takemitsu however was far better and up to her usual standards. But it wasn’t a piece I would need to hear again.

    So there was something revelatory (for me at least) in the Shostakovich 6th. My only previous experience hearing it was 3 decades ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra, before I heard a note of Bruckner. But there it was: In the first movement, I was stunned to hear Shostakovich briefly quote a key passage from the 3rd movement of Bruckner’s string quintet. Shostakovich’s awareness of and great respect for Mahler has been well established. But I’d never heard he had any awareness of, or affinity for Bruckner, let alone that he would quote a relatively obscure Bruckner work in the middle of his symphony.

    Does anyone else know anything about this?

    Comment by Mogulmeister — April 29, 2017 at 9:26 am

  2. >> an honest review, unlike the one that appears in this morning’s Globe

    Everyone knows that impugning is the order of the day now, but I find that imputing non-honesty to a reviewer in the absence of evidence is contemptible.

    Comment by david moran — April 29, 2017 at 11:27 am

  3. David, perhaps I should not have inferred motive, and I’m sorry if that offended you. But I believe the alternative to what I suggested is even worse. If a critic for a major newspaper can not hear a performance with really substandard playing for a world-class artist, then something is wrong. And if the critic does not want to say derogatory things, then perhaps the critic can write about how interesting it was to look at the statues in Symphony Hall during the performance, or something like that. One does not need perfect pitch to have heard how far off Anne-Sophie Mutter was from hitting the notes at anything reasonably close to their correct pitch. I can’t recall having heard such an off performance from a world-class violinist in a LONG time. Perhaps she was ill or otherwise not at 100%, which would make what we heard understandable. But to ignore the many deficiencies of the performance, as the Globe critic did and as Brian Schuth otherwise correctly did not, shows either a lack of familiarity with the work (which would be unlikely of a major warhorse concerto), a lack of really attuned ears, or a lack of spine.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — April 29, 2017 at 3:43 pm

  4. MM: “But to ignore the many deficiencies of the performance, as the Globe critic did and as Brian Schuth otherwise correctly did not, shows either a lack of familiarity with the work (which would be unlikely of a major warhorse concerto), a lack of really attuned ears, or a lack of spine.”

    Those aren’t the only choices, my friend…de gustibus non est disputandum! You owe an apology to the Globe reviewer, not to David Moran.

    I didn’t hear the Thursday night performance, but last night’s Tchaikovsky was masterly: bold, lavish, and most thrilling. Anne-Sophie Mutter’s intonation was impeccable throughout – an aspect you emphasize regarding Thursday but which Brian Schuth oddly failed to mention.

    Moving on: the arc of this program was wonderful – hats off to Tony Fogg along with Nelsons and Mutter. I found the Takemitsu enthralling, although the audience had a hard time settling down after Tchaikovsky’s mania, intermission or no. Nostalghia actually affected me rather more than the film on which it was based, and the players were absolutely superb. As for the Shostakovichs, the Festive Overture is a dandy opener and was pretty sharply etched, although I bet tonight’s will be even more precise, especially in some of the horn entrances. The 6th Symphony is a bit tricky to position, with its front-loaded shape (as well-suited to end a program’s 1st half, I’d say), but one gets the feeling that Nelsons was born to conduct music like this, and most of last night’s performance should make for a fantastic recording, as long as the compulsive coughing can be digitally minimized. (In addition to the note about recording in the program, I think management would have done well to post signs at the entrances).

    Comment by nimitta — April 29, 2017 at 5:18 pm

  5. Didn’t offend me, just a cheap and conceited thing to post publicly. But as a longtime reviewer I do know that commenters’ hearing and judgment are always perfect and, when different, reviewers’ are always mistaken.

    Comment by david moran — April 29, 2017 at 5:42 pm

  6. At Friday night’s performance there was applause after every movement, which I am sure will annoy the recording engineer.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — April 29, 2017 at 9:19 pm

  7. Brian Schutz was far too kind to Ann Sophie Mutter re her performance of the Tchaikovsky. Her constant exaggerations did appalling violence to what can be a moving and marvelous work, for all its warhorse status. Her performance was all about Ann Sophie, not Pyotr Illych. Look at how fast I can play here, at how slow I can play there, how inaudible and unemotional I can be in the usually gorgeous second movement. Very disappointing to say the least for someone who once was the gold standard of violin performance. Lawrence and Marjorie Franko. (Lawrence Franko, Harvard 1963 was Concertmaster and Soloist of the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra, Seji Ozawa’s Concertmaster of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra when he won his Koussevitsky Prize in 1960, and is currently Concertmaster and Solist with the Sounds of Stow, MA festival orchestra. Marjorie Franko, Smith ’63 and
    Tanglewood ’61 is his wife and longtime piano collaboratrice.)

    Comment by Lawrence Franko — April 29, 2017 at 9:25 pm

  8. I am listening to the concert on radio. (Shostakovich was being played when I started writing.)
    Mutter was playing the concerto through her own connection to and interpretation of the piece,yes. The gritty intonation worked for me as an expressive dimension of the violin, and I was willing to put aside the familiar, more ‘straight’ (for lack of a better word) versions of the concerto in my ear to follow Tchaikovsky’s music through a new prism offered by Mutter’s response to it.
    When composer Sofia Gubaidulina was visiting Boston earlier this year, during a master class she gave at NEC, she mentioned that a piece did not belong to the composer alone, that the performer brought it to life, and that it is a collaborative process. I would add that during a performance, the audience also becomes part of that process. Master composers will acknowledge that often they will notice things in their music when performed that they did not realize existed before.

    To be sure, I am completely familiar with the fact that it is a fine line how much ‘liberty’ one can or can not take from what’s written on the page. I know very well that an inexperienced (or a not most talented) musician can distort a piece via self indulgence or lack of understanding or sentimentality. This performance did not strike me as such. It was rather a fresh and personal take which brought out layers in the composition not so far as familiar to listeners. It is very possible that a different performer, or Mutter herself for that matter, might bring out yet other dimensions in another performance. Yo Yo Ma, for example, can also engage in this fresh approach to the music, paying attention and giving fresh meaning to every note.

    In short, my point is that listening with a fresh ear helps at least understand what else is or isn’t in the music. One of course need not like a particular approach, and may not personally relate to it – or one can sometimes relate to it better later. However, it did not seem to me at all that Mutter was distorting Tchaikovsky. I would also say it is a mistake to refer to her approach as “it was all about Anne Sophie”. It was about what Anne Sophie could do to bring out what she found in Tchaikovsky’s composition at this time.

    Since I am writing anyway, the Takemitsu’s overall performance seemed still in an exploratory stage to me. I do not know the piece, but there was a deliberate caution at every turn of phrase or mood (which were differentiated wonderfully) without a sense of overall continuity or overall holding together in the flow (yet.) Just an impression without previous familiarity with the piece. It was executed with an impeccable technical mastery and palette of colors, of course, by everyone.

    My brief bio is here:

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — April 29, 2017 at 10:40 pm

  9. TB’s Bach is elegant and heartfelt

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 30, 2017 at 9:06 am

  10. Thank you Mr. Eiseman. I am very happy you liked it, and I appreciate your commenting on it.

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — April 30, 2017 at 9:32 am

  11. Your Bach is even more eloquent than your illuminating comment above, Tanya…brava!

    Comment by nimitta — April 30, 2017 at 9:51 am

  12. While I found the Tchaikovsky coarse and unbeautiful (broadcast listening) and generally think Mutter’s production vulgar, I would not therefore publicly assert that a reviewer or anyone else commenting is deaf or a liar or in this case even ignorant. That’s the point here for me. Different strokes etc.

    Comment by david moran — April 30, 2017 at 12:08 pm

  13. I went to the performance on Saturday night and was left disappointed by Mu tree’s performamce. She was all over the place with the tempo, so much so that the orchestra sometimes had trouble following her frantic acceleration and extremely exaggerated rubato. As mentioned by others, she was consistently flat on the top notes and apparently had too much difficulty on double stop passages that she didn’t bother fully playing them as such. The Saturday crowd didn’t seem to mind though but I did notice many more people sitting during the standing ovation. Those who were sitting included myself

    Comment by h leung — April 30, 2017 at 1:03 pm

  14. I attended Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening’s concerts and my impression is that all the on-Note/In-note Portamenti, all the Rubati and glissandi by Mutter were intended to project her very personal feeling of the Tchaikovsky. I agree that in the Thursday rendition, the tone could be pressed, had glided and varied pretty widely and WILDLY but I never found it ugly but full of intimate feeling and complex communication. The Subsequent repeated performances were more reigned in tonally but still with very liberal rubati. As Ms Bartevyan pointed out quoting Gubaidulina, the talk of “standard” and “authentic” readings are seldom definitive and productive and music is a sonic creation , conception, communication AND reception total process. I personally perceived Mutter’s interpretation to be well within “MY” boundary and limits of liberty and good taste. To others, those limits are for sure different. Each of us is conditioned by our unique prior experience and the sensitivity of the moment. Nothing wrong with that! Mutter was out there to push and stretch the potential and limit of both her instrument and the piece of music. After playing this music for the 100 th time in public, she has earned the right to do so in my opinion. I for one enjoyed her performance enormously and am delighted we were given such a non-standard reading. I should add that Mutter probably decided to undertake this more controversial approach because she found sympathetic partners in Andris Nelsons and the orchestra. The playing of the Tutti in the concerto, especially the Woodwinds ( filled with mostly Second Desk players ) were nothing short of phenomenal and breathtaking. She wouldn’t dare to risk so much with a lesser orchestra and conductor at helm.

    Comment by Brucknerliebhaber — April 30, 2017 at 5:13 pm

  15. Thank you, nimitta, for your kind comment.

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — May 1, 2017 at 7:11 am

  16. Brucknerliebhaber makes a compelling case for Mutter. But I find myself in agreement with Mark Lutton who wrote, “Her performance was all about Ann Sophie, not Pyotr Illych. Look at how fast I can play here, at how slow I can play there.”

    Comment by Jim Levinson — May 1, 2017 at 10:20 am

  17. Is it possible to hear a recording of this controversial performance?

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — May 1, 2017 at 1:15 pm

  18. WCRB’s BSO link should have it on demand in the near future
    WCRB will also re-broadcast it on May 8

    – and belated thanks re an earlier discussion –

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — May 1, 2017 at 1:55 pm

  19. You are welcome …and thank you this broadcast information. I look forward to hearing the performance.

    It’s not surprising that there would be disagreement about an artist’s interpretation. What keeps me glued to this this vigorous
    debate is the dirvergent remarks about intonation:

    …”One does not need perfect pitch to have heard how far off Anne-Sophie Mutter was from hitting the notes at anything reasonably close to their correct pitch.”

    …”Anne-Sophie Mutter’s intonation was impeccable throughout”

    ….”she was consistently flat on the top notes”

    …”The gritty intonation worked for me as an expressive dimension of the violin.”

    I always thought that intonation in “Western art music” (for lack of a better term) was like pregnancy…either you are or you aren’t. But I’m willing to be disabused of this notion. I don’t read the BMI to be entertained. I do read it to learn. Tanya Bartevyan’s term “gritty intonation” especially intrigues me.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — May 1, 2017 at 6:34 pm

  20. My original point, which I believe has been confirmed by a number of others, was that the performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto by Mutter was far from routine in about every way. Some thought that deviance worked well, and others thought otherwise. But there was nothing in the Globe review that indicated anything other than a masterful, mainstream reading, which this most certainly was not. Whether or not it was even a successful performance is something that there are lots of different opinions on.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — May 2, 2017 at 6:52 am

  21. Jonathan (if I may) – I was referring to the raspy tone quality she employed, where the pitch was correct, but the sound quality was complex. String specialists can perhaps enlighten us further with regards to better specific terminology and how the particular sound is achieved technically.

    This complexity may have been why Mogulmeister thought she did not hit the notes near their correct pitch (in their second post) – but, if so, that was not the case. (There may have been one or two top register notes where the pitch may have been flat in a fast passage, but that’s the occasional thing that happens – ie “wrong notes” – in many performances where risks are taken.)

    Mogulmeister – One may or may not like Mutter’s or anyone else’s approach, but mainstream or routine performances (of any work) are not necessarily always desirable. Artists take risks – sometimes it works, sometimes not,- and, as you note, audience members are of course free to have their individual responses to the outcome.

    BTW, I could not find a Globe review (I may be mistaken.) Perhaps this is the review you have been referring to?:


    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — May 2, 2017 at 8:12 am


    Comment by Camilli — May 2, 2017 at 9:38 am

  23. >> masterful, mainstream reading

    Wow, not really what Madonna wrote, “made it her own” etc.

    Comment by david moran — May 2, 2017 at 12:14 pm

  24. When Tanya B. writes:

    ..”I was referring to the raspy tone quality she employed, where the pitch was correct, but the sound quality was complex.”

    this, from another genre, happily came to mind:

    Raspy, in tune, and sublime.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — May 2, 2017 at 9:55 pm

  25. Wow, that’s pretty great. There may be a huskiness in Mutter’s violin-voice now, but I can’t imagine her adopting that technique. Hilary Hahn, however…

    Comment by SamW — May 4, 2017 at 8:55 am

  26. Yes, it is sublime in so many ways.

    Contemporary approaches to (classical) music and composition have expanded our range of hearing and colors and sounds, to include elements of other “genres” (as well as a more differentiated sense of inner rhythms in phrasing,) so that being true to the essence of a classical composition is now a subtler matter than before. The genres are becoming more and more blended, coming full circle to making it acceptable, at times desirable, to employ techniques from folklore or other cultures to the “sensing” of what’s there that is not immediately obvious on the written page in a classical composition. Again, this does not mean a license to “distort” a composition, and that’s a fine line, that comes with experience and discernment. There are inner rhythmic elements which can become either meaningless or something totally different if treated too laxly. There are sound qualities which, beyond a certain range, can completely transform a classical composition into an entirely different genre – where it won’t work as well because the structural elements will not match that genre. Similarly, playing Roma music with “classical reserve” and “pureness” of tone will make it sound like “ordinary” background entertainment music. But, there is much color and imagination to be gained through a musician’s openness to all sounds.

    I remember many years ago, at an Irish music festival, I listened to an Irish harp and guitar performance, where I could ‘hear’ and feel ocean waves and echoes across hills and mountains. This awakened me to approach a section of a Schubert impromptu in an entirely different way, which, I think, works.

    I also remember a few years back, Yo Yo Ma playing the Dvorak concerto with the BSO, which I then listened to on the radio. It was a particularly emotional performance (even coming from him), and he played the last two notes from f# to b with a Chinese instrument sound, and a very rich glissando – with much yearning coming across. I have not heard him do that since in other recorded performances, but clearly it worked then and there in that performance.

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — May 4, 2017 at 10:42 am

  27. I must add that I do not find “purer” or more reserved performances of a classical piece any less enthralling (!!!), when there is sensitivity and discernment to the inner structure and subtleties of the composition.

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — May 4, 2017 at 10:52 am

  28. I’ve long thought that anyone learning the hoedown-mode Bach concertos or Brandenburgs should also immerse themselves in *Orange Blossom Special* and sundry other country fiddling.

    Comment by david moran — May 4, 2017 at 12:06 pm

  29. Just listened to the Saturday version of this controversial performance complements of the the link supplied by Tanya Bartevyan. Thank you, Tanya!

    I agree strongly with several of the insights found in the BMI review.

    1. “There were unusual portamenti and expressive distortions that threatened to leave the realm of rubato and enter that of arrhythmia…”

    2. There was a “Touch of Vinegar in her tone.”

    3. “At any given moment something interesting was going on: a rush ahead or behind, a sudden dynamic change,
    a frantic virtuoso outburst.”

    My only perplexity is that the reviewer seemed to think of these qualities took away from the integrity of the performance.

    It was, I thought, those very things that made it wonderful.

    In short, it much more fun to listen to Anne-Sophie Mutter’s performance of the piece than to read the review of it.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — May 5, 2017 at 9:47 am

  30. >> much more fun to listen to Anne-Sophie Mutter’s performance …

    Or maybe she can try switching from her Strads next time:

    (original-work report: )

    Comment by david moran — May 9, 2017 at 1:52 am

  31. I may be too late to join the discussion but there should still be room for my comments.

    I used to serve on the board of North Dakota Cass County Furtwangler Achievements & Recordings Guardian Organization. Mutter was our only winner of Romanticism Award for many years. We funded a scientific research on the cause of people’s different attitudes towards highly selective romantic musicians, Furtwangler and Mutter honorably included. Generally, people unanimously praise F for his freedom, and many listeners criticize M for her musical personality. The conclusion landed on human flaws, not exactly in a scientific way tho.

    The comments above led me to believe that people here may to much closer to recording illiteracy than to recording enlightenment. Her gritty intonation was very well known in her earlier recordings with HvK. Her rubato there was not as evident as in her later recordings (2nd round of the major concertos), but one (with ear and heart) could easily feel her freedom. Even the most determined hater would steer away from just calling her playing vulgar. This is exactly the opposite to what Mutter developed into over the year. Her gritty intonation stays powerful and becomes wider and more expressive. When composer asks for high pitch glassy voice, her tone becomes so clean, accurate and slim and can sound almost like whistle. She uses small hesitation, coupled with various timing and intensity of vibrato, creating greatest effect to listener’s emotion. All those unbelievable techniques and imagination vastly extended the dimension of the instrument’s expressiveness.

    It is somewhat pointless to talk about Mutter’s general violin character w/o listening to her long existing recordings much. Tch VC itself is problematic. Letter F, woodwinds sound incoherent and sudden to the previous orchestra phrase. it is supposed to have an emotional connection with the solo V, but it sounded very strange. Mutter made a lot adjustments in her 2nd recording with Previn. before listening, I could only pray she had the magic to ‘glorify’ the music in a way that only a true artist could do (which she had done many times). Unfortunately my righteous criticism still could find ground. I not going to provide the haters with ammo tho. So I went to the concert hall with great hope that she could further improve her playing (and possibly a future recording).

    There were some obvious differences. Nelsons’ orchestra attacked just before Mutter entered. 13 14th bars from letter C got even more freedom, since there is no marking on the score. So are 4th 5th and 6th bars from letter I. Similar effects were enhanced before Letter G, but the most radical change was after letter G. There mutter’s touches were heavier and more furious (I hesitate to call those bars improvements).

    However,,, some of her rubatos were not planned. I feel painful to say anything bad against her. I am unwilling to admit that her techniques are on declining routes, but most of the unintentional free paces were results of that. But her mastery of the instrument and the piece was superb. Ordinary audience member only got confused between artistic imagination and technical salvage.

    Have you ever heard anyone greater than her violin’s ‘crying’, in the high pitch bar before letter L? That kind of performance is very very difficult to be surpassed. I still hope certain places can be made better.

    Comment by Thorsten — May 26, 2017 at 5:19 pm

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