GENERALLY IN LIFE THERE IS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT AS A MUSICIAN, AS A MOTHER, AS A HUMAN BEING, A SPOUSE
judge, at least you have somebody living you can talk to.’’
Talk turns to issues outside music. Mutter has been described as an ‘‘ aesthetic, artistic, commercial, and altogether extraordinary phenomenon’’, a glossy, tawny-haired and carefully maintained brand that sparkles from airbrushed album covers, posters and on the concert stage. She has parlayed her photogenic looks into great wealth, playing on the power of those Valentino slingbacks and slinky frocks, the luxuriant mane and bare satiny shoulders nestling one of her two Stradivarius violins, the 1710 Lord Dunn-Raven or the 1703 Emiliani. A Washington Post critic wrote recently she leaves nothing to chance, on or offstage: ‘‘ her ‘ brand’ encompasses sizzling virtuosity, aggressive (if arbitrary) interpretive decisions, and haute couture glamour’’.
But for all this shininess, there is a formidably brilliant artistic core. Still, who exactly is the private woman behind the public image? It’s hard to say. In press interviews she invariably comes across as the personification of girlish warmth and charm underneath that sleek, shiny carapace of glamour. She seems genuinely down to earth, family oriented; she has said her greatest tragedy is ‘‘ to be a bad critics, the English music commentator Norman Lebrecht, has said ‘‘ what you see on stage, you hear on her DG records, neither more nor less. She scarcely looks at the audience and seldom gives an encore. Few musicians give so little for so much dosh.’’
This impression of her as some sort of stern, unsmiling Valkyrie of the violin seems, however, a trifle unfair. Yes, she often scowls on stage, appearing to wrestle with some kind of inner demon as she plays. But cold? Watch her on YouTube, performing an achingly beautiful, sorrowful rendition of Bach’s Sarabande in D Minor in an encore after a Berlin Philharmonic performance under Seiji Ozawa, her eyes glistening with tears, and you know the accusations are unjust.
She says with some steel: ‘‘ It all depends on what one expects a performer to do visually. I look at the generation before me, at [Jascha] Heifetz, and so on, high-class violinists whom I was lucky enough to meet at the very end of their lives when they still played wonderfully well, and visually, really, there was nothing happening. Very stern faces, almost no body movement, and this is how I feel should be the proper appearance of an artist. We are not actors, we are artists reliving the piece, so the only thing I can comment on [the criticism] is that it is just one part of the perceptions of my personality. Others think I’m playing too much on a personal level, too emotional,’’ she puffs out a breath of frustration.
Mutter has been vocal on some of the more controversial aspects of the classical music industry, from sexism (when she was engaged to perform solo with the Munich Philharmonic, conductor Sergiu Celibidache treated her so badly — among other things he reportedly called her a ‘‘ violin-playing hen’’ — that she walked out of the rehearsals) to the dumbing down of classical music. In 2011, she supported esteemed violinist Gidon Kremer after he was criticised for releasing a letter explaining his reasons for withdrawing from the Verbier Festival (among other things, Kremer decried the festival circuit’s lionising of ‘‘ fake’’ stars). ‘‘ I totally understand his viewpoint, and his decision not to perform if you feel your artistic views are compromised,’’ she says.
Mutter, who set up a foundation in 1997 that financially supports rising young musical stars (among her finds is Roman Patkolo, whom she describes as the Paganini of the double bass), as well staging benefit concerts for everything from child welfare to victims of Japan’s nuclear disaster, would like to see more classical musicians take a greater public role in critical issues of the day. ‘‘ Just give more, take a stronger role — there is no need to be involved with a political party or be some kind of spokesman.’’
In 2006, she appeared to indicate on French television that she would be retiring when she turned 45. Since then, she has said she was ‘‘ misinterpreted’’; certainly at 50, she appears busier than ever. Asked what she sees in the future, she is reflective. ‘‘ I don’t know what it brings, no one knows. Life is happening when you are making plans, ja? I hope my interest in chamber music, particularly in string trio, will one day find a good ending, which means I will have the time to find suitable partners to play a few of Beethoven’s great last quartets. But you never know.
‘‘ What can I say? I am very grateful. I just came from a funeral yesterday where I played, and this makes you very humble. It makes you realise life is a gift on a daily basis and you have to grab it and enjoy it.’’