Arts: A place for everything and everything in its place

Anne-Sophie Mutter is making plans for Beethoven.
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The violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is a cuddly wunderkind turned sophisticated superstar, smart and centred, highly articulate and startlingly businesslike. She speaks to me at her Munich office, fresh from talking to another London journalist.

As I rise to greet her, she pats me back down with a gentle admonition: "Just a second, please," she says smilingly. "I'll be with you in a moment." Then she ties the knot on her previous interview.

Suddenly, I remember our last meeting, when she breezed into the room, sat herself down, folded her arms, and waited. She does her job, and you do yours. Everything has its allotted time and place. "There is a time to bloom and a time to finish," she says, pondering her career some 22 years after her childhood debut under the conductor Herbert von Karajan. "I can't plan ahead, or decide what I'm supposed to be doing in the year 2003. No way. That's why I cannot have a long-term relationship with a record company. I cannot be imprisoned like that. How do I know what I will be ripe for in five years' time?"

Mutter seems acutely aware of the passing - and the value - of time. "In a way, I feel sad when a major recording project is over," she says, referring in particular to her new Deutsche Grammophon Beethoven violin sonata cycle, with the pianist Lambert Orkis. "We have now set it stone," she reflects, "and it reminds me that our lives are not eternal."

This has been Mutter's "Beethoven" year, with virtually no space available for other composers. Since January, she and Orkis have been taking all 10 Beethoven violin sonatas - "a family of dangerous animals," as she calls them - round the world. True to form, she has researched every semiquaver, rehearsed incessantly, read the great commentators, listened to practice recordings, and responded willingly to the musical dictates of the moment. She uses the same 1710 Stradivarius that she has been enjoying for some 15 years, rather than shifting to and fro between a series of different instruments.

Orkis emerges as the ideal musical collaborator: "In the 10 years we've been playing together, we haven't had a single fight," says Mutter. "And that's amazing because, when I was young, I was a very eruptive person. Since then I've learned, largely through my own children, to watch, to listen, have patience and calm down a little."

Although Orkis's musical views and pianistic prowess are valuable attributes, his humour is evidently crucial. "Humour always helps situations," Mutter insists. "Especially if you are close to an argument. When you are witty, you can get your point across much better."

Turning to the subject of Beethoven's manuscripts, Mutter's eyes flash with enthusiasm. She speaks of Beethoven's handwriting as: "Frightening, the symptom of a real fight, written at speed: quite aggressive, even brutal, and very dark. You wonder how it was possible for one individual to encompass such an enormous breadth of character."

She follows the narrative course of all 10 sonatas. "The first three are so uplifting: there's wit, love of life there, youthfulness and then there are those last movements." She adores the restless Fourth Sonata because "suddenly the violin pounces like a tiger; it's breathless, it's so driven... and then Spring Sonata arrives like a warm breeze."

Mutter's musical past has accommodated some meaningful confrontations, most notably with the composers Lutoslawski, Moret, Rhim and Penderecki. Has exposure to the new influenced the way she views "old masters"? "No doubt about that," she says emphatically. "I now see Beethoven as much more of a contemporary composer. I have a greater insight into his harmonic language, probably because I have had to learn all these alien languages, sometimes without any guidance. With modern music, I sit there, score in hand, with nothing to serve as a bridge between the old and the new."

Mutter relates how the feedback she receives from living composers has helped her develop a sense of living dialogue with the past. "I now have a heightened capacity to understand different styles and different periods," she says. "You also develop a taste for risk-taking because you are generally less inhibited in new music. Of course, I have nothing against tradition. But we also need to find our own way."

Mutter searched long and hard for the right recording location for the Beethoven collection, rejecting Berlin's spacious Philharmonic, and Chicago's Symphony Hall, for a venue in Wiesbaden. She was scheduled to start recording live in March and April, but postponed until the end of August: unbelievably, the finished CDs were released in Italy just a couple of weeks ago. You can use them in a CD-Rom drive, tracing the score's barline on screen, reading information and interacting with the music. But can you then tickle your mouse to "alter" Mutter's performances? "It's a synthesised musical image," she reminds me. "You can't really play with us."

Mutter welcomes new technology with open arms, viewing it as a crucial tool for music education. She is also active in restoring - and finding a sponsor for - the Carl Flesch Violin Competition, which is hoped to climax in the year 2000, with a Barbican concert of winners involving the LSO and Sir Colin Davis. "We have a wonderful international council of impresarios [to] give the project a kick in the right direction."

There's also a "Song and Dance" project with music by Andre Previn and George Gershwin, and a new repertoire including Respighi's Violin Sonata and Bernstein's Plato-inspired Serenade.

And a sabbatical? You bet. Eighth months' worth, in the year 2000. It will have been well earned.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis play the Beethoven Violin Sonatas at the Barbican on 15 and 18 October