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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