This SACD transfer of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Beethoven violin sonatas, taken from a series of live recordings from 1998, does not transcend the questionable interpretations. In each of these famous sonatas, Mutter takes excessive liberties with respect to dynamics and phrasing, and while some listeners may appreciate the thought and care she puts into these readings, it sounds as if she is trying a bit too hard to be “musical”. For example, just before the exposition repeat of the “Spring” sonata, several instances of disproportionate agogic pauses, inconsistent use of vibrato, random adherences to sforzando markings, and a sporadic disregard for (or recasting of) dynamics combine to produce an overly fussy performance that lacks momentum and a sense of direction.
Mutter's Beethoven Concerto was recorded live at the final subscription concerts of Karl Masur's long tenure as the New York Philharmonic's music director, and the beautifully played orchestral part is a tribute to his leadership. Mutter plays with a silken tone and astonishing technical command of her instrument–absolute ease in the stratospheric tessitura of the solo part, and an amazing array of microdynamic adjustments that display the infinite variety of pianissimos at her command.
Judging simply by timings, Mintz and Sinopoli seem to have decided on a middle path in their approach to the first movement of this concerto: they take nearly a minute less over it than Mutter and Karajan (also on DG), about a minute and a half more than Perlman and Giulini on EMI. Using ears rather than a stopwatch, however, they seem to be giving by far the slowest performance of the movement that I have heard in years. It is a reading from which anything which might savour of soloistic display has been expunged, in which no note, even one of a flourish of semiquavers, is allowed to be 'merely' decorative. Mutter is fond of polishing every note like a jewel, too, but the very opening of the concerto in hers and Karajan's reading sounds positively sprightly set beside the newcomer. The moment Mutter enters the speed slackens markedly, but Karajan watchfully assures that the pulse returns with each tutti, and a sense of momentum is present throughout, even during the soloist's most wayward rhapsodizings.
To celebrate their ten years of collaboration, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis recorded all ten of Beethoven's sonatas for violin and piano. Unlike most other integral sets, these recordings were made during live performances. DG already had the incendiary interpretations of Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich in its catalogue, but these new versions offer a completely different brand of volatility. The most striking example of Mutter and Orkis's radical approach can be heard in the famous "Kreutzer" Sonata, Op. 47. Violinist and pianist resort to any means possible – including exceptionally flexible tempos and an enormous palette of tone colors – in their quest to express the intensity of Beethoven's musical vision. Although the audiences are raptly silent, their presence clearly adds a palpable charge of electricity to these performances. The interpretive freedom of these performances may not appeal to all tastes, but those who value music-making as a re-creative art should find Mutter and Orkis's interpretations singularly satisfying. In any case, the daring duo defiantly counters some critics' complaints that today's performers lack personality. Andrew Farach-Colton