Some concerts are just concerts, but some come heavily freighted with history, which needs to be known if their nature is properly to be savoured. And it was clearly the history of two performers that drew the crowd to the Barbican.
Anne-Sophie Mutter has always gravitated to father-figures, starting with the flamboyant conductor Herbert von Karajan who spotted her prodigious gifts when she was 13, took her under his wing, and brought out a series of definitive recordings with her. But the reigning father-figure is Andre Previn, 34 years her senior, for four years her husband, and now, after their divorce, still a cherished colleague.
It was poignant to see them walk on stage: he looking pathetically frail and perching on a stool to conduct, she gorgeous in green and seeming much younger than her 45 years. Brahms's Violin Concerto was the work that Mutter memorably recorded with Karajan in 1981, and with Kurt Masur 16 years later: from the moment she launched into her opening stratospheric flights with Previn, it was clear that she felt she was back on home territory. Meanwhile, Previn's circumscribed little gestures were all the orchestra needed to pick up the Brahmsian torch and run with it.
Critics have long tied themselves in knots trying to decide if Mutter's playing is too perfect, or not deeply felt enough: her impenetrable façade bothers them. But she plays, as she always has, like a goddess, and the force, accuracy, and famous golden tone were all deployed here with irresistible persuasiveness.
The higher she flew, the sweeter her tone became; apart from one forgivable muff in a series of double-stopped trills, her performance was immaculate, and the cadenza was so perfectly delivered that you could sense the hall breathing a communal sigh as the orchestra finally came back in. The rest of this majestic work, which ends in gypsy exuberance, was flawlessly performed: while the audience applauded, Previn sweetly kissed her hand.
But the series of which this concert formed part is entitled "Great Conductors". Previn's greatness lies less in his interpretations than in his intelligent classical popularisations, but the way he delivered Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as a warm-up piece – at 79 – was still exemplary.