More than beautiful performances – 2005 / 2006 The Mozart Project

Interview on the Sonatas with Walter Dobner Whole worlds to explore

Anne-Sophie Mutter's "Mozart Project" has been nothing if not ambitious. Her aim: a survey of all Mozart's major compositions for solo violin. The first two parts, the Violin Concertos plus Sinfonia Concertante and a selection of Piano Trios, even rocketed into the top 30 of the German pop charts. The final segment, the mature Violin Sonatas, with pianist Lambert Orkis, will be released in August as part of Deutsche Grammophon's "Mozart Forever" celebrations.

It will, however, mark an additional milestone as well: the 30th anniversary of Mutter's concert debut in Lucerne. At this year's Lucerne Festival, Mutter, accompanied by Orkis, will be featured in Mozart's Violin Sonatas, with which they have already been touring the world. In the following interview, Vienna critic Walter Dobner talks to the artist about these works, the "most ambitious and most exacting part" of her Mozart Project (Süddeutsche Zeitung).

Anne-Sophie Mutter, why do we hear only a few of Mozart's violin sonatas? Are they really so unattractive to a violinist?

To say "only a few" is something of an exaggeration. The ones that I've chosen are the great violin sonatas. The early works have never interested me, as the violin merely accompanies the right hand - as it does with Haydn. Then there are several keyboard sonatas that were later turned into violin sonatas. I think that with our selection of 16 sonatas we have covered three important creative periods in the life of an already mature composer: the Mannheim period and the two phases of his time in Vienna. I'm not out to prove that I've recorded all that Mozart ever wrote for the violin and piano. This survey contains the works that are important to me personally and that are central to Mozart's output as a composer.

The piano is the dominant instrument not just in the early sonatas. In the Violin Sonata in A major K. 526, which dates from the same year as Don Giovanni, 1787, the piano part is one of the most demanding that Mozart ever wrote in a keyboard work. Does this explain why violinists tend to prefer the concertos to the sonatas?

There are also the purely personal predilections of each individual musician. These include a preference for this or that concerto. I don't think the fact that many of these sonatas are not often played has anything to do simply with the vanity of the violinist. It's often a lack of interest in chamber music, a genre that lies somewhat off the beaten track. But you find the same elsewhere - with the Beethoven sonatas, for example: of the op. 30 set, the C minor Sonata is often performed, whereas the other two go by the board. Op. 23 is not a popular choice - people prefer the "Spring Sonata" op. 24, even though it really only emerges in its true colours against the background of its darker predecessor, with its sense of inner turmoil. That's why this Mozart cycle is important to me. Even though chronological considerations play a relatively minor role when compared to Beethoven, it's wonderful to follow this development from the first Mannheim sonata to one of the last, which Mozart wrote for Regina Strinasacchi.

What criteria did you use in deciding which sonatas to programme as part of your three concerts?

I chose the most important works from all three creative periods - the Mannheim period and the middle and later periods in Vienna. And I tried to order them in such a way that they make musical sense but are also manageable from a technical point of view. One would never start a programme with K. 378, for example: that would be utter suicide. And it also goes without saying that the works that one chooses to open a programme should begin with a fanfare or a similar theme and be very straightforward and extrovert. More introverted works tend to be found in the middle of a programme. It is a question of ensuring that each recital represents a self-contained survey and that a constant development is discernible, culminating in the compositional high point of the programme's final sonata.

You've always had a particular predilection for Mozart ...

I've always been a great lover of Mozart, a great, great admirer of this composer. Perhaps that's why it seemed so obvious that I should also want to get to know the early works - the so-called "lesser" sonatas - in order to find out more about him as a composer and add to my reputation as a Mozartian. None of these pieces is easy. Mozart has a habit of suddenly demanding that after a wonderfully beautiful elegiac melody you have to perform a triple forward somersault from a standing start. And yet it must never sound merely virtuosic. Mozart's music is never an end in itself. However much he may have valued virtuosity, it's always wrapped up in galanterie, elegance and expression. This command of the tiniest nuance and of the mere handful of notes that may be there on the printed page is far more difficult than with Tchaikovsky, for example. There, however bad it sounds, you can simply switch on to autopilot. It's incredible fun to conjure the notes from thin air. With Mozart not a single note is conjured from thin air. Also, it's always at a speed that doesn't really race along. No matter how fast it is, it must always be very controlled.

Mozart speaks of the sonatas that he started in Mannheim in 1778 and completed in Paris as "keyboard duets with violin". How does one interpret this phrase today?

That was simply a formula that people used at that time. It really doesn't matter if they're called "sonatas for violin and piano" or the other way round. Neither the violin nor the piano has priority. Without this interaction, chamber music in general is impossible. It's not a question of who has more notes to play or whose part is more important. Ultimately, the themes are divided equally between the two instruments even in the middle group of works from the Viennese period. I think it's tremendous that in the late sonatas the violin, together with the piano, already takes over a theme in the middle of the phrase and then hands it back to the piano. Mozart achieves this to magisterial effect in the Sonata K. 454. We shouldn't direct our gaze at superficialities such as who comes in first or who has more notes to play. It's simply great chamber music, which demands of both musicians a supreme willingness to listen and a supreme readiness to be honest.

"The young woman is a fright - but her playing is enchanting," Mozart described his pupil Josepha Barbara von Auernhammer in a letter to his father. She is the dedicatee of his op. 2 set of violin sonatas, comprising K. 296 and 376-80, which were described in a contemporary review as "unique in kind, rich in new ideas and filled with traces of their author's great musical genius". Do you feel, like the reviewer, that they are "very brilliant and well suited to the instrument"?

Of course, he dedicated them to Fräulein Auernhammer because of her well-to-do father. He thought very little of her physical appearance and of her abilities as a pianist. Mozart had to keep his head above water. It was a diplomatic move to dedicate these sonatas to this relatively inexperienced pupil. With the possible exception of the Sonata K. 454, which he wrote for Regina Strinasacchi, Mozart was someone who not only took account of the abilities of the works' dedicatees but who also wrote for himself. Whether the dedicatee could really manage these works was, I think, a matter of some indifference to him.

How do you assess the technical demands of these Mozart sonatas?

In a number of them there are some very tricky bits, something that violinists know very well. In the E flat major Sonata K. 380 there are a number of passages that are decidedly awkward. The sonatas are demanding from first to last. For me, the difficulty of Mozart's music lies not in the passagework but in such things as the rondos. Take the rondo of the E flat major Sonata. To what extent should you delay the upbeat, or should you not delay it at all? The phrasing is the big problem, but it is also the key to Mozart's music. For me, these sonatas are little operatic scenes. If you look at his letters, his handwriting - it very often goes round in a circle. These letters are really miniature works of visual art. Equally striking are the theatrical descriptions that his letters contain. For me, these sonatas are like narratives. Mozart never left the operatic stage, not even in his chamber music. This brings us back to the question of phrasing and to such tiny details as the upbeat or a phrase ending. The upbeats of the dance movements are incredibly important in this respect. Here there are whole worlds for me to explore: the musical structure that has to be brought out.

What is your attitude to Mozart's final sonatas, to the B flat major Sonata K. 454, for example?

That particular sonata is a monumental achievement. Of all the sonatas, it's my favourite, with the single exception of K. 304. Mozart achieves such mastery here. In the famous Andante the violin and piano are so elaborately intertwined that you simply don't notice when the words are taken out of your mouth and put back again. This sonata is infinitely stimulating. And then this Allegretto at the end! This work has a depth that's unequalled. 

Mai 2006

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