Monday, October 13, 2008

Is there anything new to say about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach? The redoubtable violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter thinks so - at least, that was the impression she gave in a highly personal and thought-provoking performance at the Kennedy Center Saturday night.

Focusing on some of Bach’s best-known works for violin, Miss Mutter played them on an almost heroic scale, but infused with a rare human warmth that was absolutely riveting; a performance as fresh as it was moving.

Backed by the 17-member Camerata Salzburg, Miss Mutter shone in two of Bach’s violin concertos, No. 1 in A Minor (BWV 1041) and No. 2 in E (BWV 1042). Both have been played to numbing familiarity, but they’re magnificent works in the right hands, and Miss Mutter turned in intense, detailed accounts that probed constantly for meaning. She took risks, shaping the music with a restrained rubato and turning even the most dancelike movements into exercises in introspection. It was clear that she always knew precisely what she was after, and by refusing a play-it-safe approach to Bach, she made the works her own.

The up-and-coming Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang joined Miss Mutter for Bach’s engaging Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins (BWV 1043). Miss Frang, who is only 22, lacks the depth and gravitas of her mentor, and it was always clear who was in charge, but she’s ferociously gifted, and one of the high points of the evening was the concerto’s second movement - the soaring and wrenchingly beautiful Largo ma non tanto - in which the two violinists played their distinctive personalities against each other, with superb results.

The concert closed with a more off-the-beaten-track work, an arrangement of Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata in G minor, known as “Il Trillo del Diavolo” (The Devil’s Trill). The piece supposedly came to Tartini in a dream, and it has a fantastic quality to it, full of color and wild displays of virtuosity - not Bach, maybe, but still a fun showpiece for any violinist. It looked like it would make a playful end to the evening, but Miss Mutter approached it with a surprising amount of seriousness and respect. From the tender opening to the fearless close, she found depths that (to these ears, anyway) were completely unexpected - and isn’t that exactly what great musicians are supposed to do?



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