Arts & Events

Anne-Sophie Mutter & Lambert Orkis Play Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday February 02, 2020 - 05:53:00 PM

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is Artist-in-Residence at San Francisco Symphony in 2020, and she is scheduled to give three appearances here this year in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. On Sunday evening, January 26, Anne-Sophie Mutter teamed with her longtime collaborator pianist Lambert Orkis to perform a recital of three Beethoven violin sonatas at Davies Hall. In a brief interview printed in the program notes for this recital, Anne-Sophie Mutter spoke of her lifelong admiration for Beethoven, saying “He is more than a musician to me, he is a philosopher… and he stands for humanity.” She also spoke of the inspiration she draws from Beethoven’s life motto” “Through darkness to light.” This motto, she revealed, is reflected in her choice of sonatas for this recital. By including both the dark, agitated Opus 23 Sonata in A minor and the sunny, cheerful “Spring” Sonata in F Major, Opus 24, Mutter sought to emphasise the passage from darkness to light. Further, the famed Kreutzer Sonata in A Major, Opus 47, closes the program because it is “the pinnacle of sonata writing: You could almost describe it as a concerto for piano and violin.” 

Opening the recital was the A minor Sonata Opus 23. In a bold move, Beethoven begins this sonata with a Presto movement, a tempo usually reserved for a finale. In fact, this first movement is fast and furious, downright ferocious in tone. Its second theme, while sounding less angry than the first theme, offers plenty of nervous agitation; and this opening movement races to a dramatic ending, gloriously rendered here by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis. The second movement is a slow Andante scherzoso, più allegretto, which features subtle interplay between piano and violin, sensitively performed here by Orkis and Mutter. The finale of this sonata resumes the nervous edginess of the opening movement, only this time in rondo form, thus closing out what scholars consider a curious outrider among Beethoven’s violin sonatas.  

Next on the program was the much-loved “Spring” Sonata, though this name was not bestowed on the work by the composer. Rather, it was so-named by early listeners who likened the music’s cheerfulness to the mood of the Spring season. Here the opening theme is given to the violin, a first in Beethoven’s catalogue of violin sonatas. It is a gorgeous theme, likened perhaps to a gurgling spring flowing over rocks as it descends towards the sea. The second movement is a wistful Adagio molto espressivo; and the third movement is a charming scherzo that begins with piano and violin slightly out-of-sync only to unite in the middle section’s Trio. The finale is a rondo full of lyricism, and it closes this “Spring” Sonata in a joyful mood.  

After intermission, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis performed Beethoven’s famed Kreutzer Sonata in A Major, Opus 47, so-named for its dedication to French violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, who befriended Beethoven in the former’s visit to Vienna. (Kreutzer was touched by the dedication but allegedly never played this sonata because he found it “incomprehensible.”) The opening theme is here given to the violin, then picked up by the piano. After a bit of back and forth, the two instruments play together. Then there erupts a demonic Presto full of violent contrasts. This demanding music was brilliantly performed by Mutter and Orkis. Towards the end of this opening movement Beethoven indulges in one of his signature moves, as he interrupts the momentum and nearly brings the music to a halt before suddenly resuming a headlong rush to the finish. The second movement is an Andante con variazioni which offers a series of four variations on a lyrical theme in F Major. The finale offers a brilliant tarantella Beethoven originally intended for the Kreutzer Sonata’s immediate predecessor, his Opus 30, No. 1 Sonata for Violin. For that earlier work the composer ultimately wrote a theme-and-variations movement; but when he came to compose the Kreutzer Sonata Beethoven realised he had a sure-fire finale ready in-hand in the discarded tarantella. So the Kreutzer Sonata rushes headlong in a brilliant dash only to be interrupted in its momentum by a pause towards the end before hurtling forward to a rousing close, spiritedly performed here by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis. 

As an encore, Anne-Sophie Mutter announced that she and Lambert Orkis would play a piece by John Williams from her new album featuring the film music of John Williams in new adaptations written for her by the composer. Though I didn’t catch the title, the piece bore the signature of John Williams’ cloying sentimentality, albeit lushly played by Anne-Sophie Mutter.