Anne-Sophie Mutter

There's no way to confirm it unless it was she herself who admitted it, and I'm torn on whether or not she would or could, but I have a difficult time believing anyone has ever attended a performance by Anne-Sophie Mutter that was anything but excellent in every possible way, from the music selected for the program to the performance itself.

Of course that can't be true. Everyone has an off night every once in awhile for any one of a million possible reasons. Especially after performing for 40 years in the public eye. There is no reason to expect Mutter should be the exception to the rule. And yet not once in the half-dozen times I've seen her during the past 20-odd years has she ever given the slightest hint that anything other than perfection, or something damn close to it, was in store for the audience and that she would deliver it with seeming ease, impeccable technique, and superb interpretive choices.

So I was a little surprised to see some empty seats in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last Saturday afternoon, when once again Mutter and her long-time collaborative pianist Lambert Orkis delivered a performance that was pretty damn perfect for their Washington Performing Arts Stars Series recital. Sure, the weather was sublime for the first time in months, people had only a week left to file their taxes, and the concert was scheduled inconveniently in the middle of the afternoon, and despite all that the hall was mostly full, but I expected it to be packed because it's Mutter, she's not an annual or even semi-annual visitor to the U.S., and she has less than a handful of peers at this stage of her career.

Mutter's partnership with Orkis, now in its 29th year, shows no sign of growing stale. While her star wattage glows brighter and it's her name listed in a larger-size font in the program, on stage the duo format levels the playing field between them, creating a meeting of equals, much like classical music's other lopsided pairing of a superstar soloist and a well-respected if not-quite-widely-known collaborative pianist, Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott (a partnership is now in its fourth decade). 

Two of the four works on the program, Mozart's Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major, K. 526 and Respighi's Sonata for Violin and Piano in B minor, P. 100, give each musician equal time to impress, and Orkis rose to the occasion during both. The surprisingly brisk pace of the Mozart's first movement created a sharp back and forth between the two, while Orkis' playing matched Mutter's for nuance and expression during the slow second movement. The Respighi sonata turned out to be the highlight of the afternoon in part because of the unexpected delights of the work itself, which gives both musicians the space to surprise the audience with the score's sweeping dynamic exchanges and unexpected contrasts, with the piano taking on the more obviously "beautiful" passages in many spots while the violin plays decidedly aggressive music.

The concert began with Sebastian Currier's Clockwork for Violin and Piano, a four-movement piece played without breaks that favors the violin. Despite Currier's writing allowing the violinist to display a formidable range of techniques and attacks that range from almost inaudible whispers to grand statements, like its title suggests, there is little in the piece that displays an appreciation of human sentience or expressive ability, and while its certainly not dull, it feels in the end a cunning bit of showmanship disguised as something more cerebral.

On the other hand there is no such pretense with Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28, the last work on the program, and one that gives the performer a thrilling showcase ranging from quiet drama to grand outbursts, but primarily makes its case by providing the audience an easy-to-follow path through its steadily increasing level of technical demands. It's both flashy and difficult, and Mutter made it look written for her. Two encores followed, both transcriptions by Jascha Heifetz -- one Tchaikovsky's "Melody," the name of the other I didn't catch nor recognize.

In a strapless, fitted, lemon-colored gown of the kind she's worn throughout most of her career, and with her hair slightly longer than it has been in recent years, Mutter seems unwilling to yield anything to the passage of the time. She cuts as glamorous and commanding a figure as she did 20 years ago. Her playing sounds more assured and confident than ever, even if her furrowed brow betrays the seriousness of her commitment to render everything in superbly clear colors and tones.