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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

Whit­sun Fes­ti­val: ‘‘ She played it gor­geously, and above all, not at all like a child prodigy,’’ raved Die Welt’s re­viewer.

It was the start of an in­tense, 13-year cre­ative part­ner­ship with the con­tro­ver­sial Aus­trian con­duc­tor. With him she recorded most of the great vi­olin con­cer­tos, from Mozart and Beethoven to Brahms, Bruch and Men­delssohn. He treated her like a daugh­ter, ad­vis­ing her on agents and record­ing con­tracts.

All her life, she would at­tract, and thrive on, the at­ten­tion of fa­therly men­tors, from con­duc­tor An­dre Previn (whom she mar­ried af­ter the death of her first hus­band, Kara­jan’s lawyer Detlef Wun­der­lich; she and Previn di­vorced af­ter four years) to the wealthy Swiss arts pa­tron and con­duc­tor Paul Sacher, who in­tro­duced her to con­tem­po­rary vi­olin mu­sic. But the key in­flu­ence was Kara­jan, the highly de­mand­ing, per­fec­tion­ist taskmas­ter who, as she said, ‘‘ taught me to find the com­mon thread that runs through a score, to think the mu­sic through to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion and im­pose a sense of di­rec­tion on it, [who] taught me not sim­ply to jux­ta­pose notes in long, over­ar­ch­ing para­graphs but to place them in the ser­vice of the mu­si­cal idea’’. From him she in­her­ited, among other things, a for­mi­da­ble work ethic and sense of per­fec­tion­ism.

Asked about Kara­jan’s in­flu­ence, she is re­flec­tive. ‘‘ It’s hard, ja, sim­mer­ing down 13 years into one sen­tence. There is this great quote where ap­par­ently he said — and I think it must be true be­cause it’s so much of the essence of what his per­son­al­ity is about — that when you reach all your goals, then you have re­ally en­vi­sioned them too low. It’s very true, I think. Gen­er­ally in life there is room for im­prove­ment as a mu­si­cian, as a mother, as a hu­man be­ing, a spouse, what­ever.’’

Th­ese rec­ol­lec­tions about Kara­jan spark a char­ac­ter­is­tic philo­soph­i­cal ex­po­si­tion on re­la­tion­ships, moral val­ues and mor­tal­ity. Peo­ple are im­por­tant to Mut­ter. ‘‘ Of course it’s great to do the best you can as a mu­si­cian but at the end of the day, what re­ally counts in life is hu­man re­la­tion­ships. It is who you are when you are with your fam­ily and friends that mat­ters, and that will sub­se­quently shine through in your mu­sic-mak­ing.’’

Un­der Kara­jan’s tute­lage, Mut­ter rapidly as­cended to new heights. In 1980, she made her US de­but un­der Zu­bin Me­hta and her in­ter­na­tional ca­reer took off. Her awards range from the Deutscher Schallplat­ten­preis to sev­eral Gram­mys; her record­ing ca­reer in­cludes lauded record­ings of the com­plete Beethoven vi­olin sonatas, Brahms’s vi­olin sonatas, her sur­vey of Mozart’s con­cer­tos, sonatas and trios, and her best­selling record­ing of Vi­valdi’s Four Sea­sons.

She could have kept march­ing along this lu­cra­tive clas­si­cal path but, ever the risk-taker (she’s de­scribed her­self as hav­ing a ‘‘ moun­tain-climb­ing per­son­al­ity’’ and an arche­ol­o­gist’s cu­rios­ity), she started ex­plor­ing what she calls the ‘‘ strange hi­ero­glyph­ics’’ of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic in the mid-80s af­ter arts pa­tron Sacher in­tro­duced her to the com­poser Wi­told Lu­toslawski.

In 1986, she pre­miered his com­plex Chain 2 in what she’s de­scribed as a ‘‘ mind-bog­glingly fright­en­ing’’ but rev­e­la­tory ex­pe­ri­ence; since then she’s been a pro­lific com­mis­sioner and per­former of tough, com­plex new works by Wolf­gang Rihm, Henri Du­tilleux, Penderecki, Sebastian Cur­rier (she pre­miered his Ring­tone Vari­a­tions last year) and Sofia Gubaidulina, whose stormy 2007 work In Tem­pus Prae­sens Mut­ter cites as one of the most emo­tion­ally ful­fill­ing pieces she’s ever played. The Chicago Tri­bune has praised her for ‘‘ do­ing more than any liv­ing vi­olin­ist to en­rich the late 20th cen­tury vi­olin reper­tory’’. She’s also tack­led more stan­dard mod­ern works like Al­ban Berg’s spiky Vi­olin Con­certo to great ac­claim.

When we speak, she is en­grossed in the up­com­ing pre­miere of a new Penderecki work, La Fol­lia for solo vi­olin, that ‘‘ has driven me to the edge of my abil­ity to un­der­stand, and also par­tially to the edge of my tech­ni­cal abil­i­ties, to be hon­est. Tech­ni­cally there are pas­sages in this piece which have given me great trou­ble and I don’t re­mem­ber ever hav­ing said that about any­thing. Just about a week ago the break­through came and I sud­denly could feel how it all comes to­gether. But it doesn’t come easy and that is the won­der­ful thing about mu­sic. It’s very hum­bling.’’

The ap­peal of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic for Mut­ter lies in be­ing able to set new tra­di­tions in per­for­mance, and free­ing your­self from the tyranny of his­tory and con­ven­tion (‘‘it is very, very dif­fi­cult to grow up in sur­round­ings where the mu­sic his­tory of the last cen­tury, in Europe in par­tic­u­lar, is re­ally so present’’). ‘‘ You can put all your cu­rios­ity in it and al­though you have to re­port to the com­poser af­ter a long and in­ten­sive study of the piece and he will be your mother’’ (she has two chil­dren, Richard and Ara­bella, from her first mar­riage). Her web­site lists her re­sponses to Mar­cel Proust’s fa­mous ques­tion­naire on per­son­al­ity: it ap­pears she loves the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, the paint­ings of Klee and Kandin­sky, the colour red, de­scribes her­self as an ‘‘ op­ti­mist and idealist’’, loathes racism and ‘‘ re­li­gious fa­nati­cism’’. But for all the seem­ing can­dour and friendly chat­ti­ness in in­ter­views, there is some­thing opaque about her. Per­haps Mut­ter, as with her beloved Mozart, is most present and alive in the space be­tween the notes.

For all that crit­i­cal praise, she has her dis­senters. She’s been ac­cused of ev­ery­thing from hav­ing an overly in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic ap­proach to core reper­toire, to be­ing too cold and im­pe­ri­ous on stage. One of her most prom­i­nent

Anne-So­phie Mut­ter

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