Not quite ready to leave the twentieth century

Anne-Sophie Mutter | Barbican, London Kirov Orchestra | Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

History takes little account of the calendar, and centuries never begin on time. Just as the last century only really began in 1914, so music written now remains, to all intents and purposes, 20th-century music, and will continue to be so for some time. I imagine that's part of the point of Anne-Sophie Mutter's "Back to the Future" concerts at the Barbican: forget postmodernism, she seems to be suggesting we haven't got to grips with modernism yet.

Mutter's survey takes in some of the 20th century's finest music for the violin, much of it specifically written for her. She is one of the few players of truly international status who has consistently premiÿred new works, and includes several of them in the series, but she also looks further back, to Sibelius and Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Ravel. All the pieces are included in her CD collection, also called Back to the Future, so the performances have a promotional aspect, but that's no bad thing.

After the opening chamber recitals, she began the concerto leg of the series last Wednesday with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur. For this, Mutter selected two of her signature pieces, the Violin Concertos of Alban Berg and Jean Sibelius, each of which might have been composed with her in mind. Both Berg and Sibelius would have been grateful for an interpreter able to cope with apparent case with the technical demands, yet still able to impose her personality.

Some find the personality too imposing. Mutter's vibrato is broad, she sometimes shapes phrases in a manner that might be thought capricious, her sense of timing is elastic: there is never any doubt that what you are hearing is Mutter's way. That, though, is what fills the halls, and when the orchestra and conductor are with her, the results are thrilling.

Mutter has an exquisite range of colours at her disposal; Sibelius's opening phrases might have been taken for pipes skirling across a great distance. Later, in the third movement Allegro, she played with such abandon that she seemed to be galloping towards the precipice of incoherence, but while we mere mortals thought that she was staring into the abyss, she had her escape route precisely planned.

Nor does Mutter give the impression that she's there just for herself. In the Berg, when viola and violin from within the orchestra picked up her melody, she cocked her head to listen. Every moment that she was not playing, her body seemed to tense in sympathy with the music. It helped that the LSO, in superb form, effortlessly ran the gamut from delicacy to blatancy that these concertos require. The strings in particular produced such gorgeous sound that, even without the soloist, the concertos would have been enthralling. Masur clearly enjoyed himself, every imperious gesture suggesting he was playing the orchestra himself.

Berg's concerto is a deeply private piece, its dedication to the dead daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius telling only part of the story. Berg cryptographers have unveiled further levels of elegiac longing for secret loves far in the past, but if these resonances are evocative, they matter less in performance than the absolute command of the soloist. Whether thinned to the merest whisper, expanding into glorious song, or scraping angrily like fingernails down a blackboard, every sound was sculpted with superfine precision, yet never to the exclusion of feeling: as the final note faded into the air, she seemed as moved as the rest of us.

There is often a sensible resistance to virtuosity as it threatens to sweep all before it; and when virtuosity is linked to marketing prerogatives, we are on slippery ground. It would be foolish to deny that glamour plays its part in Mutter's success, but she remains a serious musician. Berg and Sibelius may not be terra incognita, but she doesn't play safe when it comes to new music: Sofia Gubaidulina and Pierre Boulez are both writing works for her. Mutter plays the superstar game to her own ends, which include creating a new, and, eventually, 21st-century repertoire.

The next day another odyssey through the last century began as Valery Gergiev conducted the opening concert of four devoted to music associated with Diaghilev, beginning with what is virtually his own orchestra, the St Petersburg-based Kirov Orchestra. Gergiev looked in buoyant mood, often literally as he achieved lift-off from the podium at exuberant moments.

He was, unsurprisingly, at his most balletic during Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which made a raucous opening for the festival. Sometimes too raucous; the nakedly exposed bassoon introduction was not as smooth as it might have been, and there were rough edges poking out here and there throughout. They only added to the thrill; Gergiev found not only the surging energy, particularly from the brass, but also a dry humour. This, after all, is not a genuine pagan ritual, but an exhibitionist display by a well-bred composer enjoying the chance to play the primitive.

If starting the concert with the Rite made historical sense, it also risked putting everything else in the shade. Prokofiev's The Prodigal Son sounded pallid in comparison, despite thrilling interplay between three clarinets in the central Presto. Energy levels peaked again in the same composer's Scythian Suite. Prokofiev felt that anything Stravinsky could do, he could do as better, and in 1914, shortly after hearing the Rite, he set about writing his own pagan ballet, Ala i Lolli, for Diaghilev.

Diaghilev, unconvinced, rejected the piece, but Prokofiev took it away and worked it up into the Scythian Suite. Gergiev performance gave Stravinsky a run for his money, even if Prokofiev ironed out the metrical intricacy that underpins the Rite. The Night movement had the required ethereality, but there was also something ominous, which Gergiev's players evoked with subtlety. Then in the climactic "March of Lolli and the Procession of the Sun" (no wonder Diaghilev turned it down), There were pre-echoes of the mighty March from The Love of Three Oranges.

Gergiev's commitment and his orchestra's flare left no room for doubt. Despite, or because of its youthful excesses, the Scythian Suite is no mere pale imitation but a work of genuine power; that's why he saved it till last.

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