Posts tagged ‘Mutter’

March 24, 2012

“Mirror, Mirror…”

Ever since I first heard Lydia Mordkovitch’s recording of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto a few years back I’ve been thinking about the role of the performer, their function as mediator between me and the music itself (if there is such a thing). I had not previously known that concerto, and my first reaction was that it was lightweight, even frivolous. But a second and then a third hearing convinced me otherwise. Now I place it among the most moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

But after a couple more hearings I became curious about how another performer, Anne Sophie Mutter, would perform the piece. So, I decided to have a listen.  After just a few minutes, I turned it off. What I was hearing was not the Prokofiev concerto. It sounded so different from the Mordkovitch version, it seemed to be another composition entirely.

What I’ve been wondering since is why. I consider Mutter to be the greatest living violinist. At the time, I was unfamiliar with Mordkovitch beyond that one performance. I had experienced the genius that Mutter brought to Mozart and Brahms, had heard her evolution from wunderkind to mature artist — and beyond. I had thought her performance could only enhance what I had heard in Mordkovitch’s. Instead, it seemed to violate it.

Was I only reacting as I might to any alternative rendering of the performance that had first revealed the music to me? That first hearing of a composition tends to imprint itself on us so strongly that the music and the “interpretation” are virtually indistinguishable. I have nevertheless recognized and appreciated performances that are far superior to my initial experience of a composition, even when that second revelation occurs years or even decades later. A first kiss is a first kiss, but there may well be other passions, perhaps just as or even more memorable.

I can’t speak with any real authority about the work of either Mordkovitch or Mutter, but my experience of their separate performances in this one instance raised a question that has outlived my initial reactions: To what extent is a performer a vehicle, conduit or, as I think of it, a clear pane of glass through which we experience the music, and to what extent are they a kind of second composer whose performance is itself a creation as original as a musical composition?

My thinking on this has evolved. At first I thought I saw a clear distinction: Mordkovitch was that clear pane of glass, an unobtrusive aperture into the essence of Prokofiev’s music; Mutter (and her fellows) a kind of composer in her own right, her performance as much a creation as the composition she’s playing, each new rendering an opus, as it were, just as all of a composer’s compositions can be said to be one single composition in various forms and stages of development.

But nothing is ever so clear-cut, or remains so unless we are so wedded to an idea that we cannot bear to see it overturned or even significantly altered. I have heard recordings that seem to be near-perfect representations of the experience of a concert hall. I know now those recordings are the result of great artistry on the part of sound engineers. Is there an artistry on the part of the performer that corresponds to the skill of those engineers, involving an almost saintlike sublimation of personal ego for the sake of letting the music shine through unimpeded by “interpretation”? Or, does this apparent simplicity involve, as does all art, a great deal of artifice and delusion, the way good prose that seems simple and straightforward is the result of many hours of work on the part of the writer to achieve that “effect.”

There is room certainly for both types of musicians, and I’m not sure we should value one over the other. Ultimately, there may be more of this in the ear and mind of the listener than I have yet explored. But the question, however naïve or tentative, enriches for me music’s, indeed all of art’s, limitless possibilities.

(Read a great piece relevant to these thoughts at Harold Knight’s blog on the occasion of J.S. Bach’s recent birthday and why it is “the most important day of the year.” )