Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson compare notes on...

double play; Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Serenades; Humoresque Anne-Sophie Mutter, Staatskapelle Dresden / Andre Previn (DG 447 895 2); 'Intimate is the last word I'd use to describe Mutter - in your face, more like it' 'All that over-heated, over-larded zigeuner-schmaltz is frankly inappropriate here'

This is going to divide opinions - right from the start. The Dresden Staatskapelle strings manage an almost miraculous shimmering pianissimo: it seems to steal in from nowhere. But then in comes Mutter, her tone pale, thin, almost vibrato-less - anything less like Sibelius's marking "sweet, expressive" would be hard to imagine. A few seconds later, tone and expression swell spectacularly, the bow digging deep into the G string - the sort of sound and delivery that hit the listener right between the eyes.

It's spectacular playing, with a recording that does nothing to diminish Mutter's almost terrifying authority - take issue if you dare, the violin seems to be saying. The central climax of the first movement is literally hair-raising. And the sheer, concentrated energy in the slow movement's long, singing lines is just as astonishing; but the heavy, dark tone, the swoops, the plangent blue-notes all bristle with aggression. In fact, the whole movement reminded me of the late Peter Cook impersonating Greta Garbo, poised on a centurion tank, bellowing into a megaphone, "I vhant to be alone! Vhy don't you leave me alone?"

No, this isn't one of Sibelius's subtlest works, but an artist like Ginette Neveu (EMI mono 1945) could match all Mutter's intensity with an intimacy, a feeling for inner landscape, that draws the ear in. "Intimate" is the last word I'd use to describe Mutter: "in your face" is more like it. If anything, the effect on the shorter pieces (especially the first Humoresque) can be even more devastating - and yet there are impressive touches here too; after all, you can treat these too lightly. At the end, though, one big question goes on nagging: does Mutter actually like Sibelius? SJ

Here is one of those frustrating occasions when an artist's creative virtuosity - and this is one hell of a display - tells you more about the artist than about the piece. Even as Mutter defrosts the opening theme, warming life into her chilliest non- vibrato, the idea has become an effect, and the effect more important than the theme. How did she do that? That's not what we should be asking. Somehow or other, in all the years of preparation and exploration that have gone into the making of this performance, the spontaneity - and with it the identity of the music - has gone missing.

All that over-heated, over-larded zigeuner-schmaltz is frankly inappropriate here; it takes the piece somewhere else - somewhere much further East. And even at her most atmospheric - the tail-end of the second group (shy, searching, glazed and confused) - Mutter's rubato is self-regarding, teased to a high degree of affectation. The slow movement, so much a product of the Finnish heartlands, acquires an artful application of vibrato, a chic veneer. The colour and character is all wrong. It isn't Siberian. It somehow doesn't belong - any more than Previn and the Dresden Staatskapelle do.

Their's is a strong, well-rounded, finely modulated, detailed account of the orchestral part. But there needs to be more grit in the mix: these are wild, forbidding, un-predictable terrains. Nothing should sound preordained. I cannot deny, though, that the fiddling per se is fabulous. And, yes, exciting. Notorious sticking-points - like that one in the finale which demands a lightning shift from the top to the bottom of the fingerboard to pick up rising thirds in tempo - are not a problem. But Mutter knows as much - and that is a problem. Anything you can do... ES

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