Frau Mutter, it was arguably your encounters with Aida Stucki and Herbert von Karajan that were the most decisive in your life. Which was more important for your artistic development?
There’s no doubt that I owe most of what I know about the violin to Aida Stucki. She was my principal violin teacher. Four years before we got to know each other I had lessons with Erna Honigberger – she too was a pupil of Carl Flesch. But Aida Stucki influenced me interpretatively during the decisive years of my life and also added to my technical armoury. As a conductor, Herbert von Karajan looked at a score with completely different eyes from those of an instrumentalist. It was a stroke of great good fortune in my life and important for my development both as a musician and as a person that I met two such extraordinary people and such exceptional musicians at such an early date.
Is it possible to explain the secret of Frau Stucki’s teaching, which was clearly exceptional?
Her great strength was knowing how far she could get a talent to blossom and where the limits of that talent lay. In my own case, there was an enormous delight in playing the violin and even at that early date a fanatical interest in tone colours. This was also a part of the Carl Flesch tradition – he the first and, as far as I know, the only teacher who approached the problem of sonority from an analytical standpoint. Aida Stucki went through all this in detail with me: producing the sound on the bridge or on the fingerboard, the effects of the angle of the bow, as well as its speed and pressure – there’s no end to this phenomenon. And the teacher also has to inculcate an infinite sense of curiosity that ultimately leads a pupil to continue to enlarge his toolbox.
Does this mean that your visions change?
Absolutely. The more you think about what you’ve achieved, the more your inner ear inevitably discovers new opportunities. If you’re aware from an early date of the endless possibilities of a string instrument, then you’re never in danger of repeating yourself. And it’s very much this that makes the life of a musician so exciting over a period of decades – perhaps for the listener, too.
You once said that you’re always keen to get to know new registers of music.
I’m like the insatiable caterpillar eating its way through the repertory. Not long ago I gave the first performance of Wolfgang Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel – a wonderful work. And the next three world premieres are already lined up. I want to expand my repertory in both directions: Vivaldi interests me with his highly virtuosic violin concertos, as do the composers of the last century.
Do you also find something new in pieces you’ve often played before?
Take Mozart. If I conduct the orchestra myself, a completely different dynamic emerges. It demands far more of me than if I just play on my own. In working with other musicians, especially when playing chamber music without a conductor, there’s no end to the dialogues that can develop. I have to react to the orchestra quickly and openly.
One of your most famous recordings is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with Herbert von Karajan. This, too, is a work you’ve recorded twice.
The recording with Karajan in the 1980s was naturally plush and full-toned. The later recording with the Trondheim Orchestra involved much smaller forces and produces a far more spontaneous, fleetfooted and dancelike impression, which is closer to my present idea of Baroque music. With today’s understanding of vibrato and non-vibrato and with the experience of Harnoncourt and Gardiner we can no longer return to a concept of Baroque music that may have been valid in the 1980s. Even so, I’d like there to be more flexibility again, including the use of vibrato.
Many older recordings are now being reissued – would you perform these works differently today?
I’d certainly do things differently. After all, every concert is merely an attempt to get closer to the truth on the printed page, and a CD is no different. Most of my recordings were produced within the context of concerts or in a few takes in the concert hall in order to preserve their spontaneity – very much in the tradition of Karajan. My own latest album – the Brahms sonatas – culminates in what for me is a successfully intimate recording of the G major Sonata, reflecting my belief that this piece is a farewell to life.
Did Karajan teach you to deal with recording situations?
Much of what you experience at an early age leaves its mark on you for the rest of your life. The Beethoven concerto, which I’d never played onstage at that time, was recorded “cold”. We had a rehearsal, and then the microphones were suddenly switched on. Since then there’s really nothing that can perturb me. Karajan taught me to find the common thread that runs through a score, to think the music through to its logical conclusion and impose a sense of direction on it. In today’s performances I often miss the inner tension that grips the listener from start to finish.
Were you also fascinated by Karajan’s ability to popularize classical music in a good sense?
Karajan lived in an age that was innocent of the download. His idea of making music accessible to all was a splendid one. But we’ve now achieved a degree of accessibility that’s harmful to music. It’s simply too easy to upload bits and pieces on to your iPod. This has led to a “highlight society” in which people no longer care to apply themselves to the long and effortful idea that’s an integral part of the European art of composition. There’s a real danger that we’ll lose the ability to enjoy things slowly.
You’ve described your violins as an extension of your soul. Presumably you mean only their sound.
What ultimately makes an artist is partly their handling of sonority, colour and subtle shadings. But there’s also the ability to trace the architectural form of a piece, to fill an edifice with a sense of structure, to bring out the counterpoint and underline it with colours. For a string player the ability to develop the sound is especially important because the bow stroke means that it has more possibilities than a keyboard instrument. How do I produce the sound out of nothing, what kind of a sculpted form can I establish in a fraction of a second, and how can I create the context that leads inevitably to the next note?
You encourage younger artists and yet you don’t really teach.
I taught for a number of years at the Royal Academy, but now I concern myself only with the scholarship holders from my foundation, which supports young, up-and-coming soloists. Even this is something I manage to do only intermittently, when they’re preparing for a particularly important concert or working on a new repertory. I try to find time for them whenever I’m asked.
You once said you wanted to be swifter than the transience of life. Are you a restless person?
I’m extremely restless, although I’ve long since come to terms with the transience of life. But perhaps it’s precisely this that forces me to try to do so much and to try to complete so much at once. For me, it makes sense to work with my young colleagues, to build orphanages and to help elderly, handicapped people. The two orphanages in Romania and the one in Belarus give me an incredible amount of pleasure. It’s wonderful when you know the people behind the project and can watch them turning into enthusiastic young women full of the joys of life and able to cope with life’s demands.
Have you always felt a special affinity for contemporary music, or did the decisive impulse come from Paul Sacher?
My musical education had largely ended with Berg and Stravinsky, and I came to Berg at a relatively late date. It was Paul Sacher who introduced me to Witold Lutosławski, an exceptionally refined man, and this in turn opened the decisive window for me. In Witold’s music I discovered colours – we’re back with them – which I didn’t think I’d needed in any of my previous work. This also opened up a new perspective on Romantic and Classical music. In the meantime I’d also encountered twelve-note music, which I’d avoided until then.
The composers who were decisive for you also regarded sonority as very important – Dutilleux, I think, is a good example of this.
There’s no doubt that my choice of “favourite composers” is highly dependent on their emotionality and their understanding of the violin as a voice-like instrument. It was arguably Sofia Gubaidulina who represented my first foray into a kind of music that really explores the limits of the violin’s range of expression, even the limits of its physical resources. If ever a piece by Boulez were to come my way, I know I’ll be guilty of playing this, too, with great emotionality [she laughs] and colour.
When did chamber music become important in your career?
During my late teens I played with Alexis Weissenberg, then as part of a string trio with Mstislav Rostropovich and Bruno Giuranna. By performing with great colleagues I soon learned that sawing away implacably isn’t in the spirit of the music. At one of the first rehearsals of our trio, the other two asked me why I was playing so insanely loudly as my part was not really important. At first I didn’t understand them. The violin not important? That was a completely new insight for someone who’s a “pure soloist”.
As an artist, do you see yourself as someone who has a responsibility to society?
That’s why I give benefit concerts. For my young colleagues it’s important to get away from the glitz and glamour, to see life as it really is and understand what music really means in society. Music is more than simply something that people consume as listeners. It should prompt us into thinking about the meaning of our lives, about our own creativity, the existence of a soul, and about everything that goes beyond shopping, work and consumerism.
You’re very fond of jazz.
I’m fascinated by the improvisatory nature of jazz and by its spontaneity. The way Ella Fitzgerald can lean on the rhythm without losing the swing but indicating only movement is also important in classical music. What shall I do with the bar lines? What happens between them? Music has to move, and a note value is only a relatively ill-defined entity that can be moved in both directions. In exactly the same way I can use intonation for interpretative ends by consciously attacking a note from below or above. The note then has a very different feel to it.
Have you always loved jazz or is this something you learned from André Previn?
My fascination with the treatment of time in jazz is something that’s evolved only in the last few years. But my love of jazz is bound up with my childhood. At home we listened to jazz almost more than we listened to classical music. And I’ve always felt enormous admiration for André. There’s nothing he can’t do.
You’ve been a part of the classical music business for 35 years. How long do you think you can go on?
I plan enthusiastically but I fully accept that things may not work out and that, for whatever reasons, it may not be possible for me to play next season, or the moment of inner emptiness has come. I can imagine that, when the time comes, I’ll retire from the stage and not look back. The moment when, physically speaking, you’re no longer at your peak as a string player comes to us all. I’ve accepted this. But I don’t want to plan how my life will be without music. I’m sure something will occur to me.
Excerpts from the exclusive interview by Oswald Beaujean with Anne-Sophie Mutter for ASM35