How often do you run across the hack formula "one of the leading musicians of his/her generation" in a program bio or review? Not only is it a meaningless nuisance; its ubiquity makes it all the more difficult when an artist really does need to be singled out from her peers. Anne-Sophie Mutter's Wednesday evening recital at Benaroya Hall was a stunning reminder of what sets the truly great performers apart: their ability to make us hear music in entirely new ways. (She also happened to be stunningly fitted in one of her mermaid-style Dior gowns — a silk-satin lemon yellow number with fantastical swirling appliqués.)
In fact, even the word "recital" seems underwhelmingly prosaic for the kind of musical experience the German violinist, in collaboration with pianist-partner Lambert Orkis, was able to summon. Mutter has embarked on a North American tour focused on the three Brahms sonatas for violin and piano. A decade ago she did a similar tour around the Beethoven sonatas, and the Mozart anniversary year in 2006 prompted impressive recordings of all of his major compositions featuring solo violin.
The point isn't merely to traverse a cycle of pieces by one composer as if they were a musical obstacle course (the sort of thing that happens with certain pianists undertaking the complete Beethoven sonatas, for example). For someone with the musical intelligence of Mutter, this kind of prolonged concentration inspires a sense of cross-connection and depth of insight where the reading of one work can play off another.
Such was the case with Mutter's Brahms. Simply programming all three of his violin sonatas together involves more of a risk than might be apparent at first sight. These are all substantial pieces that tend to require a serious investment of attention from the audience and leave little wiggle room for relaxation. Moreover, Mutter is not one to play to the gallery and court favor. Yet she and Orkis held the crowd captive with a sense of finding new treasures buried in these scores, waiting to be unearthed. The Violin Sonata No. 1 in G (Op. 78), for example — which Mutter placed in the middle of her program — offered one revelation after another. She seemed particularly interested in the relation between Brahms's melancholy, reminiscence-laden lyricism and her thoughtful exploitation of contrasting sonorities. Mutter played full-blooded, sumptuous, romantic bowing off razor-thin wisps of notes — lingering shivers on the edge of silence. At the end of the Adagio, the effect was almost experimental, yet not indulgent.
You sometimes hear the claim that Mutter's playing is almost too beautiful, too perfect — sumptuous and rich on the surface but ice-cold at heart. According to this critique, she's the violinistic equivalent of her early mentor as a prodigy, Herbert von Karajan (whose hundredth anniversary, it so happens, is April 5 and is being celebrated by Mutter this season in concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic). I for one don't see how anyone could have been unmoved by the depth of expression Mutter brought to both the G and A Major Sonatas or unexcited by the passion in her reading of Brahms's Third Violin Sonata, the Op. 108 in D minor.
But what particularly struck me is that Mutter seems engaged on a new level with these works, in search of a profound simplicity and naturalness beyond all the rigors of Brahmsian architecture and motivic development. At the beginning of the Op. 108, which tends toward a quasi-symphonic density of sound, Mutter and Orkis steered clear of bombastic fuss, dialoguing with the narrative assurance and spontaneous excitement of a jazz duo. Indeed, much of the pleasure of the evening was in how Mutter and Orkis listened and responded to each other.
And as for another charge often leveled at Mutter — that she is too "polished" and good-mannered to let loose and have fun — surely her zestful, earthy rendition of three of Brahms's Hungarian Dances in a generous set of encores laid that to rest.