Mutter & Orkis celebrate – 2014 Silver Anniversary

Interview with Mutter and Orkis Kindred Souls

“Meeting Lambert was a stroke of luck for me. When we started to perform together, it quickly became clear how perfectly we breathe and phrase together.” It was in December 1988 that Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis gave their first joint recitals in America and immediately sensed that they shared a mutually sympathetic way of thinking about music which neither felt would ever change. For Anne-Sophie Mutter such an affinity is “either there or it isn’t. It’s hard to put it into words. But you notice at once whether you can really converse with another person. For us, this essential basis has remained constant throughout our twenty-five years together.”

The fact that these two artists approached their partnership from somewhat different angles proved not to be an obstacle but was in fact extremely productive. Lambert Orkis had long been familiar with contemporary music and also with performing on period instruments, and this familiarity had influenced his view of the music of the 18th and 19th centuries. The violinist is convinced that their work on Mozart and Beethoven sonatas has profited immensely from this. “In general we’re helped by the differences in our personalities as much as by the points that we have in common, including the desire to stand by each other unconditionally. We’re like high-wire artists trying to ensure that the other person has the best possible position for a triple somersault with a twist.”

For the pianist, the question of how such a partnership between artists can survive for so long without even the faintest murmur of disagreement is very simple: “We like one another, we like each other’s playing and we like each other’s company. This makes things a lot simpler, because we work very hard. To a certain extent I was spoilt by the wonderful time I spent with the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who introduced me to Anne-Sophie. But, right from the outset, playing music with her turned out to be completely natural. Her playing is incredibly beautiful and wellinformed, her taste absolutely sound, even in contemporary music. Anne-Sophie combines a very real delight in music with a spirit of adventure and an enormous passion for the matter in hand. For my own part, I like to combine virtuosity with a beautiful sound. Much of what we communicate with one another is conveyed by sound alone. Of course, we talk to each other, but we say very little about interpretation. We talk about politics and religion or about her dogs and my cats – and wenever argue.”

Anne-Sophie Mutter has always preferred working with conductors who have their own ideas on music and have strong opinions of their own. “I value that far more than a conductor who merely gets the orchestra to remain politely in the background. In the case of chamber music, it’s even more important for your partner to bring his or her own experiences to the table. I’m always keen to learn. And this is possible only in the case of musicians who know more about a piece than I do or else who think differently about it – as is the case with Lambert. It’s him whom I have to thank for introducing me to a composer like Sebastian Currier, who wrote the violin concerto Time Machines for me and the chamber piece Aftersong for Lambert and me. Lambert has provided me with lots of important artistic ideas and introduced me to some new artistic friends.”

Over the course of twenty-five years the two of them have explored the musical worlds of many different composers: Franck, Debussy, Fauré, Schumann, Brahms, Kreisler, Prokofiev, Respighi, Webern and George Crumb. They plan their programmes together, with regular input from Anne-Sophie Mutter’s wonderful teacher, Aida Stucki. Without her advice, they might never have been made aware of jewels such as Respighi’s sonata. Their central and most demanding projects were the Mozart and Beethoven cycles that they released on four CDs each in 2006 and 1998 respectively. “I’d played many of the major pieces,” recalls Lambert Orkis, “and Anne-Sophie had performed others. But most of the Beethoven sonatas and especially the Mozart sonatas were new to us. That’s why this project was the most surprising of all for me. To be honest, I was afraid of Mozart. Anne-Sophie helped me a lot and read the composer’s letters, making it clear to us what incredible stories these sonatas have to tell.” For Anne-Sophie Mutter, too, these sixteen great sonatas raised an infinite number of questions. “Mozart’s scores contain practically no performance markings – there are very few indications of dynamics, for example. So it was good that we were able to develop many of our ideas together and hadn’t already decided in advance in which direction we would go. We brought very different ideas to the project. In general we are open to each other’s ideas and interested in what the other person has to offer, and each of us always likes to throw something into the scales that the other one will find stimulating and even disturbing.”

The word “routine” is not in their vocabulary, even when they are touring and may cross five borders in the course of five days and give ten recitals in eleven days. Even after twenty-five years they still practise intensively before each performance, sometimes honing their musical ideas right up to the very last minute – not that this precludes the spontaneity of the moment. “We take risks,” says Lambert Orkis. “One of us presents the musical material and gives it a tone-colour such as we’ve never heard before. And the other player reacts to this.” “With Lambert I can do anything, increasing the tempo to its absolute limit and abandoning myself completely to the sheer joy of playing. Many great composers who were themselves gifted performers always used to play their works differently from one performance to the next. We’re not looking for a single perfect performance that we then spend the rest of our lives repeating. We know from many living composers how many different ways there are of breathing life into a score. Almost all of them believe that the personal view of the interpreter is decisive.” And this is certainly true of a work like André Previn’s Sonata No. 2, which in Lambert Orkis’s view was written “with a twinkle in the eye. The final movement is full of jokes and humour, two qualities all too often missing from new music. André writes accessibly and yet his music still sounds fresh and modern. He simply doesn’t take himself as seriously as many of his colleagues.” Anne-Sophie Mutter likewise values Previn’s ability to communicate with his audience. “And who writes more beautifully for the voice and hence also for the violin? Few contemporary composers can bring emotions to life in the way that he does in the sonata’s second movement.” 

There could hardly be a greater contrast than with Penderecki’s La Follia for unaccompanied violin, a work that recalls Baroque models and that constitutes a veritable showcase of fiendishly difficult variations on a majestic theme. “He leaves nothing out: harmonics, runs in thirds and tenths, and leaping intervals where you’ve got to fasten your seat belt. I think he has raised the form to a level of perfection unique in the violin repertory, even if I had to have a good cry on his shoulder because of a couple of absolutely unplayable intervals.”

Has there ever been a serious disagreement between Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis? She laughs. “Apart from my brother and my late husband I know no one less moody than Lambert. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for myself. When I’m hungry and don’t get to eat, things can become difficult, and Lambert undoubtedly suffers more from this than I do.” The pianist disagrees: “I may sometimes suffer on account of a grand piano, but never because of her.”

Oswald Beaujean Translation: Stewart Spencer

March 2014

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