Anne-Sophie Mutter – ‘Vivaldi: The Four Seasons’ A DVD-Audio review by Mark Jordan

Thank God Anne-Sophie Mutter is one of the greatest violinists in the world. Because if she wasn’t, the erotic come-hither shot of her on the cover of this album would seem to be a desperate attempt for hipness in our modern media-savvy world. But when you can play the violin like a thing possessed, it doesn’t matter what pose you take. Mutter can deliver the goods. And if she wants to look devastatingly seductive while doing it, well, more power to her.

Twenty years ago, the young prodigy Anne-Sophie Mutter made a hit recording of Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on EMI. In 1999, she revisited the work for a very different sort of performance with the Trondheim Soloists. That performance now makes its way to multichannel audio in this DVD-Audio release from Deutsche Grammophon. How does this new version differ from the older one? In just about every way possible.

Mutter puts it best herself when she compares playing this work with a full symphony orchestra to trying to drive a Rolls Royce down a winding country lane. In this reconsideration, she jumps enthusiastically into a nimble (though still very plush) sports car for that trek, though some may still question the modernity of the vehicle. For this is decidedly not a period-instrument performance. Mutter delights in her full, passionate vibrato (most of the time), and the corporate sound of the Trondheim Soloists equally exults in the fat, full sound of modern instruments. But this is a performance which has learned a lesson from historically-aware performances, which is namely that Vivaldi’s music has a hot temper as red as the composer’s hair. The Karajan performance seems in hindsight almost dowdy, like a dowager parading down the avenue in a mink stole. Mutter’s remake is sexy and daring, much like the cover photo. That is not to say that it necessarily is the ideal evocation of Vivaldi’s eccentric visions, but it dares to take a strong expressive stance, and that is worth a lot. Overall, it is a broad performance with moments of explosive activity but even more moments of languorous meditation. Among modern-instrument recordings, it is certainly the classiest.

Tempo distortions abound for expressive ends, such as in the portrayal of a staggering drunk in the first movement of ‘Autumn’, or the death of the fox pursued in the hunt that ends the same concerto. This is also something brought into fashion by such period-instrument performances as Simon Standage with Trevor Pinnock leading the English Concert on Archiv, or, more recently, the downright wild performance by Il Giardino Armonico on Teldec with Enrico Onofri as the aggressive soloist. But as the textures of period instruments are a very different world from modern instruments, I feel this performance is not directly comparable to those. Historically aware period performances achieve a clarity and sense of palpable texture that is very different from the sleek, lush sound of modern instruments. Of such “period instrument” recordings, my favorite is the classic BIS recording by Nils-Erik Sparf and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble, which delights in the quirks of the music without smacking the listener over the head like Onofri and Il Giardino Armonico or their predecessors in that style, Alice and Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Concentus Musicus of Vienna. Not that such performances don’t hit the spot every now and then. There’s nothing like breaking out the whips and chains for an evening with Vivaldi.

Overall, there aren’t very many modern-instrument recordings in the catalogue these days, considering how effectively the period groups have cornered the market. In addition to Mutter’s earlier recording, there is also the once-controversial Nigel Kennedy EMI recording with the English Chamber Orchestra from 1989. It was probably the first modern-instrument recording to reflect the adventurousness already displayed in numerous period performances, although, characteristically, many of Kennedy’s outré touches come from nowhere but his own imagination (improvisations, interpolated cadenzas, harmonics, slides). For sheer thrills, though, it yields to Mutter’s new-found high-voltage approach. It also yields to the 2003 remake that Kennedy recorded for EMI with players from the Berlin Philharmonic. The framework remains essentially the same, with generally faster tempos than Mutter and company, but with a greater elegance and assurance than the 1989 recording. Of course, this being Kennedy, there are many unusual touches, some going far beyond decorative elaboration. For instance, Vivaldi has a viola evoke the sound of a barking dog in the slow movement of the ‘Spring’ concerto. Kennedy and friends decide to have that dog gradually rouse other dogs in the neighborhood, until Kennedy has a whole pack of violas and violins barking at his heels. Now, I appreciate Kennedy’s creativity and sense of adventure, but all this barking activity was so widespread, I found myself listening to it instead of the violin line, which is one of the most breathtaking cantilenas Vivaldi ever composed. The magic of a haunting melody was broken. Mutter and friends, by contrast, keep the barking viola restrained and dreamlike, as if it were floating in from a distance, allowing the soloist to spin her web of spellbinding sound.

Such lively touches abound elsewhere in Kennedy’s new recording. Certainly, a very literalistic approach to the bird calls scattered throughout the score puts Kennedy’s rendition in touch with the pictorial exploits of other baroque composers, such as Biber, but a little of that goes a long way. Mutter touches briefly upon such pictures, then resumes her unbroken singing. Perhaps the ideal would be somewhere between Kennedy’s whimsy and Mutter’s refinement.

Despite his quirks, Kennedy remains very fresh and likable throughout, with a lighter touch than Mutter. And, of course, Kennedy is just as phenomenal a player as Mutter, so the two performances both shine with flashes of daredevil playing. The choice is really between a hyped-up, intensified mainstream approach (Mutter), and a decidedly off-the-beaten-path adventure – or misadventure (Kennedy). If Mutter exaggerates Vivaldi’s scenes by viewing them from a souped-up sports car, Kennedy is taking the trip in a charmingly absurd vehicle of his own invention, the likes of which has never been seen before on any road.

Again, most older modern-instrument recordings are so tame in comparison to Mutter that they are hardly worth mentioning. In its day, Sir Neville Marriner’s Decca recording with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields was a huge hit, arguably being the record that moved the piece into the central mainstream. Now, though, as pretty as it is, it seems almost like Muzak. Older recordings by Stern, Perlman, and Zukerman are all solid without unleashing the full range of Vivaldi’s imagination. One of the best early modern recordings was the Columbia record of John Corigliano, Sr., with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein’s boisterous energy found its way to the core of the score in ways that later scholars ended up endorsing from a historical point of view. On the other hand, it is a bit rough-and-ready by today’s standards, and certainly offers nothing like the elegance of Mutter’s performance. For sheer prettiness of playing within an orchestrally tame framework, it would be worthwhile to mention the bargain-price recording that Vox made in the 1960’s, featuring Suzanne Lautenbacher as the soloist with Jörg Faerber and the Wurttemburg Chamber Orchestra. Though generally slow and fulsome as a performance, it features Lautenbacher’s enchanting playing, which in the slow movement of the ‘Spring’ concerto is rich and intense. It is surprising that she never became a more prominent player on the world concert stage, considering the ravishing sweetness of tone of which she was capable. As it still wanders in and out of the catalogue at times, the Vox recording is worth picking up as a souvenir of a great lesser-known violinist.

Anne-Sophie Mutter, on the other hand, is far from being obscure, and the packaging and extra features of this DVD-Audio disc very much play to her glamorous image. The photo gallery includes numerous shots of this breathtakingly beautiful woman, both playing and informally posing. Especially charming are the playful shots of Mutter and key members of the Trondheim Soloists which capture the boisterous mood that musicians tend to display in private (and in rehearsal) but not in formal, oh-so-serious concerts. There is also a stylish video that features excerpts from the Vivaldi, filmed and edited in frenetic, modern music-video fashion. This sort of promotional item will annoy some classical music fans who persist in expecting artists to cling to an old-fashioned decorum, but it doesn’t bother me. It is a product of our times, of the media age, and if it helps grab anyone who hasn’t paid attention to classical music before, then I’m all for it. After all, new creative approaches are essential to keep social relevance for the sort of music that is frequently dismissed as arcane. Though the sound world of Vivaldi might seem initially remote to young people raised on alternative rock and hip hop, the key is to catch their attention long enough to let them notice the temperament and vividness of this music. A storm is still a storm, and buzzing flies are still buzzing flies. When Vivaldi pictures them in his music, anyone can “get it”. And once they’re hooked…

Incidentally, the new Kennedy is available in a “special edition” version that includes a seventeen-minute promotional film about the release, which features Kennedy on a dark soundstage, playing along with the recording while surrounded by dozens of candles, something like a Sting video I once saw. Of course, the humorously distracting element in that is that you can begin tracking which takes were edited together by how much the candles are burnt down. You can also do the same by keeping track of how many hairs on Kennedy’s violin bow are broken. Ah, the pitfalls of classical video-making. More seriously, though, it features only Kennedy playing in the excerpts from the concertos for two violins that fill up the disc, visually underlining Kennedy’s stardom despite the fact that co-soloist Daniel Stabrawa of the Berlin Philharmonic matches him gesture for gesture throughout those pieces.

The double violin concertos (in A minor, Op. 3, No. 8; and in D major, RV 511) on the Kennedy disc are more valuable makeweights than the arrangement of Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill Sonata’ on Mutter’s disc, especially since Mutter is even more romantic and anachronistic in her approach to that work. As noted above, Daniel Stabrawa yields nothing to Kennedy in the virtuosity department, and they seem to be of one mind between themselves and the orchestra with the numerous changes of tempo and temper that Vivaldi scatters throughout the two concertos.

The Mutter recording comes from the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, but the pickup is fairly close, giving a bright though always elegant sound that doesn’t allow for a lot of room ambiance. Thus the multichannel surround sound program of this DVD-Audio version only enhances the clarity and presence of the music to a moderate degree. Being only 48kHz 24-bit sound, it isn’t quite as vivid as the finest high-res recordings, but it is still a strong step up from regular CD sound, and as such, warrants praise. This disc would be especially attractive for those who want to move up to higher resolution sound but don’t yet have multichannel capabilities, as the 48kHz 24-bit stereo program of this DVD-Audio has a livelier edge than the original CD release from 1999. The surround sound increases that edge, although not as dramatically as many others I’ve heard. The closeness of the balance prevents the acoustical space from being a large factor in the recording, but on the other hand, this closeness also keeps the orchestra balanced with Mutter, which is certainly preferable to many other recent “star” recordings on DG (and other labels) which relegate the orchestra to dim backup status behind the larger-than-life soloist.

All in all, a good recording of a fine modern-style performance, but my heart remains with the period-instrument groups who somehow bring Vivaldi just that little bit more to life.