CLASSICAL MUSIC / A proper little modern: Anne-Sophie Mutter, the prodigy who played with Karajan at 14, will be 30 in June. Time, the violinist tells Mark Pappenheim, to put away childish things. Like Bruch and Brahms and Mozart . . .

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SO you made your recital debut at six; played your first concerto, with Karajan and the Berlin Phil, at 14; and have recorded all the great classical warhorses - the Bruch, Beethoven and Brahms, the Mozart, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky - before you are even 30 . . . The question is: what do you do for an encore? Go on recycling the same old rep for the rest of your life? Self-destruct like Nigel Kennedy? Take up conducting?

Well, if your name is Anne-Sophie Mutter, you create a fresh repertoire for tomorrow by pioneering new pieces of today. It's a commitment that has steadily grown over the past seven years, since Mutter was first invited to premiere Lutoslawski's 'dialogue for violin and orchestra', Chain 2. So impressed was the Polish composer with her playing that, two years later, he produced an orchestral reworking of his earlier Partita for violin and piano and dedicated it to her. After that, Mutter was hooked. In 1988 she premiered En Reve, a dreamy concerto by Norbert Moret (sometime pupil of Messiaen and assistant to Furtwangler); and last summer she presented a new concertante piece, Gesungene Zeit, by Wolfgang Rihm. With a concerto from Penderecki in the pipeline, Mutter is looking forward to doing a new piece every year.

The quest for novelty is not, she stresses, born out of boredom with the classics. It's symptomatic, rather, of a common frustration felt by 'merely' interpretative artists at being excluded from the full creative process. 'But if you are close to a composer,' she maintains, 'and he writes for your specific abilities - or even against them - then you are part of it. You are the one who sets the standard. It's a part of creativity which you might miss if you only play the standard repertoire.' It is a matter not just of personal satisfaction, but of artistic obligation. 'The violin repertoire,' she notes, 'especially with orchestra, is really not that large. So, if you have a certain apparent popularity, you really should use it to expand the repertoire and educate the public.'

She was fortunate, perhaps, that her own education began with a gentle lesson in Lutoslawski ('very poetic, very colourful') rather than with the short, sharp shock of the uncompromisingly new. Yet, she admits, it was still something of a struggle to readjust to a more contemporary idiom after so many years devoted to the classical and romantic repertoire, with only occasional forays into the 20th century for such modern masterpieces as the Bartok and Stravinsky concertos. 'So many of the technical things are quite different,' she observes. 'And so is the way to learn a contemporary piece. It's not as with Mozart or Bach, with whom you've grown up and whose music is somewhere in your ears already.'

She was fortunate, too, in having a uniquely well-qualified guide to this strange new soundworld in the person of the octogenarian Swiss patron and conductor, Paul Sacher, whose string of commissions, stretching back to 1926, encompasses works by almost everyone of note from Stravinsky and Bartok to Britten and Berio.

It was Sacher who commissioned Chain 2 and recommended Mutter to Lutoslawski for the premiere, and it is Sacher who, until now, has commissioned all her other new pieces. For, despite her many years of stardom, she was, she insists, too shy to ask the composers for herself. 'I'm somehow intimidated commissioning work from a composer as you would order a new pair of shoes - which is foolish, because composers also live by composing. But I would never have dared, eight years ago, to approach Lutoslawski. That's why Sacher had to do it all for me] But once I had played Chain 2, my interest was widely awake. And Sacher knows what would enrich my playing. So Moret came next, then Rihm, and now Penderecki.' They are all 'classic romantic contemporary composers'.

'I don't like minimalists,' she explains. 'I don't like assortments of sounds which have no logical connection.' If there is one common factor to her chosen few, it is a feel for the 'singing line', a vocal quality echoed in the title of Rihm's Gesungene Zeit ('Sung Time'). 'That's something I'm really striving for,' she confirms. 'Having as much colour and expressivity as a human voice can have.'

Even now that she has finally found the courage to commission a new piece for herself - a sonata from the young American, Stanton Cureir - she still fights shy of further interference, quite content simply to sit back and wait for the finished piece to arrive in the post. 'I would never,' she insists, 'tell a composer 'Don't do this]' or 'Don't do that]' He should feel completely free. If he doesn't understand anything about violin, that's fine too. Most things are possible - and, if not, there still is time to go to him and say, 'Listen] The violin only has four strings and not five]' '

Given this lack of direct collaboration, Mutter is disarmingly sceptical about how far pieces have been tailor-made for her. 'I'm always surprised when they say, 'It's especially written for you.' Who? Me? What is the thing which is so especially written for me?' With Gesungene Zeit, though, Rihm said he was inspired directly by her ability to invest high pianissimo notes with energy and body. Yet, even then, when he asked her if she would have any problems with the many wide leaps he proposed writing into her part, she was, she says, too embarrassed to admit that she would. 'So now I've got them - lots of them]'

Those are, however, the sort of creative challenges she is only too happy to face in performance. But many modern works offer more intractable problems of balance that she feels can only be solved in the recording studio (and, thanks to a good working relationship with Deutsche Grammophon - they record Moret and Rihm for her, she records Sarasate and Kreisler for them - all her commissions have made it on to CD).

Not that Mutter is any fan of the over-engineered, multi-edited approach to recording, preferring live or quasi-live conditions, with long takes and few patches. She does, however, see the microphone and mixing-desk as valid means of correcting imbalances and spotlighting details lost in live performance. 'If you can make a score transparent - as it was meant by the composer and as it is often impossible, because of acoustics, to do on stage - then I'm always for the recording possibilities.' Even such a modern masterpiece as the Berg can do with a little lift, with its often low- lying solo part tending to be submerged beneath heavy wind scoring despite the composer's painstaking stipulation of leading and subsidiary voices. 'This Haupt- und Nebenstimme thing is very clever,' she concedes. 'But this is composed in the head - reality just works against it. It is much better on a recording.'

On record and in performance, she tries to pair off the new with the more familiar - Lutoslawski with Stravinsky, Moret with Bartok, Rihm with Berg. In recital this week, in Birmingham and London, she is playing the Lutoslawski Partita, in its original chamber scoring, with Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata and Schubert's Fantasia in C - 'a completely unknown but wonderful piece,' she enthuses.

How much any of this new-found neophilia relates to Mutter's own recent burst of creativity producing her first child, she will not say. 'Nee]' she demurs. 'I'm here as violinist, the rest is private]' Hasn't it created problems, though, that where once she would let nothing come between her and her violin - even to the point of playing in strapless dresses - she now has a baby to compete for her affections? How exactly does the Lord Dunn-Raven (the name of her Strad) feel about the new arrival? 'Oh, nee] Sounds like On the Couch with the Psychiater,' she laughs, while conceding that, yes, some players do tend to treat their instruments like people - 'or better] It sounds so ridiculous to a non-musician, I know, but it's true. An instrument of 280 years has developed its very own character. Wood is living, we should not forget - and this is more than wood, it's wood with a soul]' And that soul, she believes, absorbs all the emotions that players, throughout its life, pour into it.

(Photograph omitted)